The plastics legislation heads off what would be a costly and contentious ballot measure and pushes California ahead of the world in the fight against plastic waste.
Striking a blow against a pernicious form of pollution, California lawmakers on Thursday passed the nation’s most far-reaching restrictions on single-use plastics and packaging, with Gov. Gavin Newsom expected to sign the bill later in the day.
The legislation heads off a November ballot measure that many lawmakers and the plastics industry hoped to avoid, and it puts California at the forefront of national efforts to eliminate polystyrene and other plastics that litter the environment, degrade into toxic particles and increasingly inhabit human blood, tissue and organs.
Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) has tried for years to get state legislators to tackle the growing plastic pollution crisis but has faced opposition from the plastics industry and some food container manufacturers.
Late Wednesday night, the California Assembly passed the bill 67-2, with the Senate passing it Thursday morning with 29 ayes and no “nos.” Backers applauded.
“With this legislation, California continues its tradition of global environmental leadership — tackling a major problem in a way that will move and grow markets, create incentives for investment, and give tools to other states and countries to help play their part in this fight,” Allen said in a statement.
For the past six months, a team of roughly two dozen negotiators hammered out language designed to reduce plastic, increase recycling and shift the economic burden of waste disposal to plastic producers and packagers — all the while trying to find language that would satisfy those producers, as well as waste managers, packaging companies and environmentalists.
The bill requires that by Jan. 1, 2028, at least 30% of plastic items sold, distributed or imported into the state be recyclable. By 2032, that number rises to 65%. It also calls for a 25% reduction in single-use plastic waste by 2032 and provides CalRecycle with the authority to increase that percentage if the amount of plastic in the economy and waste stream grows.
In the case of expanded polystyrene, that number needs to reach 25% by 2025. If the number isn’t hit, the ubiquitous, hard-to-recycle foamy plastic will be banned.
“It’s a de facto ban,” said Jay Ziegler with the Nature Conservancy, noting that current recycling rates for polystyrene are in the low single digits, making it improbable that a 25% recycling target could be met in three years.
Plastics waste has become an increasing scourge nationwide as plastics packaging has become ubiquitous in groceries, fast-food outlets and other businesses, and consumers — especially during the pandemic — have embraced take-out items delivered in single-use packaging. The resulting waste pollutes marine environments and clogs landfills, in part because of challenges in recycling plastics, including China’s decision to end imports of plastics waste several years ago.
The bill is based on a policy concept known as Extended Producer Responsibility, which shifts the responsibility of waste from consumers, towns and cities to polluters. It also gives plastics companies extensive oversight and authority in terms of the program’s management, execution and reporting, via a Producer Responsibility Organization, which will be made up of industry representatives.
Among various duties, the group will be responsible for collecting fees from its participating organizations to pay for the program, as well as an annual $500-million fee that will be directed to plastic pollution mitigation fund.
CalRecycle has ultimate authority over the program.
Negotiators, including Heidi Sanborn, director of the California Stewardship Council, said past failures in Extended Producer Responsibility laws influenced how this legislation was written, enabling the authors to identify areas that could be abused or ignored.
In 2010, the state created a similar producer responsibility law mandating carpet recycling. Overseen by the industry, the target was 24% recycling by 2020. Recycling rates decreased after the program was instituted. CalRecycle sued the group for $3.3 million in 2017 for failing to meet its target, and in 2021, they settled for $1.175 million.
In another case that involved California’s Paint Care program, the manufacturers ultimately sued the state and used the funding from the program to cover their litigation costs.
Language in this new plastic bill includes clear dates and consequences for failure, including a $50,000-per-day fine on any company or “entity” not in compliance with the law, as well as directions for how collected fees can and cannot be used.
“We’ve learned from mistakes in the past,” said Sanborn. “This legislation is solid.”
Not everyone is happy.
The American Chemistry Council’s vice president of plastics, Joshua Baca, issued a statement on Wednesday saying that although his organization had worked alongside Allen and the negotiators for months, the final version “is not the optimal legislation to drive California towards a circular economy.”
He said the law’s definition of recycling “needs to be improved and made clearer so new, innovative technologies that keep hard to recycle plastic out of the environment and landfills count in achieving the circularity goals in the legislation.”
The chemical trade group — which includes the world’s largest plastic, fossil fuel and chemical companies — is currently urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to include the conversion of plastic into energy and fuel, via pyrolysis and gasification, as methods of recycling.
The bill explicitly notes those forms of plastic conversion — which are polluting — will not be considered “recycling.”
“The bill, with my committee’s amendments, bans chemical recycling and includes recognition of the protection of disadvantaged and low-income communities,” said Assemblymember Luz Rivas (D-North Hollywood). “I would not let the bill out of my committee if I felt that a chemical recycling plant could be built in my community.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.