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posted: 8/16/2012 8:52 AM

Editorial: Gov. Quinn's obligation to act on plastic bag recycling

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

The best alternative facing Gov. Pat Quinn as a deadline approaches for action on legislation purportedly designed to reduce plastic bag waste in Illinois isn't nearly as simple as it would seem. It comes down to this question: How much plastic bag waste will we have four years from now?

Legislation sitting on Quinn's desk -- SB3442, the Plastic Bag and Film Recycling Act -- can be viewed not so much as a compromise law as a cooperative law, produced through the efforts of environmentally concerned lawmakers and especially, retailers and bag manufacturers who can see the handwriting for their industry's future littering highways, hanging from treetops and whipping in the wind along rural fences.

Even the manufacturers recognized that something would have to be done about all this burgeoning waste and that government, including local municipalities, would do something about it if they didn't.

Thence SB3442, which has been sold as the retailers' and manufacturers' commitment to take ownership of the problem. Whether it in fact does that or whether it is really the special interests' effort to undercut true regulation of their industry is a matter of reasonable conjecture and, in some circles, passionate debate.

And the answer will be discerned only in the passage of time. Environmentalists -- who, buoyed by the public relations success of a 12-year-old Grayslake girl's 160,000-signature petition drive, are fighting hard to persuade Gov. Quinn to veto SB3442 -- contend that individual towns in Illinois are poised to implement bag bans and say such an action by even one or two will do more to control plastic waste than the bill. Manufacturers, supported by some waste-management concerns like the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, contend that local communities have yet to demonstrate a commitment to recycling and this legislation is necessary to get a comprehensive program in place.

On many levels, the most uncomfortable feature of the latter's argument is a provision in SB3442 that pre-empts local communities from enacting stricter regulations than the law imposes. Supporters contend a mishmash of rules throughout the state would make measurement and management of a comprehensive law prohibitively complex.

We're not so sure about that, or about why Home Rule towns in particular ought to be precluded from actions they deem to be in their best interest. Chicago, in fact, is already exempted from the legislation -- surely for political reasons -- and, if it demonstrates the will, could by itself provide an object lesson in handling bag waste? So, should Quinn strike the pre-emption provision in an amendatory veto, as some towns and bill opponents urge, he would improve the law.

But he also will be making it politically inert. Manufacturers and retailers will oppose the result and a legislative failure to override will leave us where we are today -- lower according to some estimates by a factor of 10 than the pitiful 8 percent national average for recycling this waste.

So, in the interest of decreasing the amount of plastic waste, Gov. Quinn must scan the future and surmise whether environmentalists are correct that towns across the state are eager to begin controlling it on their own or whether manufacturers will honor a commitment to do it themselves.

The law sunsets in four years. The industry has that much time to demonstrate whether its promise to policing itself is genuine and effective. It's a start, at least, whereas the vision of individual towns launching a frontal assault on bag waste is speculation at this point. Let Gov. Quinn give comprehensive recycling a chance by signing the bill, for surely if the industry doesn't live up to its responsibilities now, the decision in four years -- if it takes even that long to ascertain the value of this approach -- will be much easier and more profound.

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