A Future With 100% Recycled Beverage Bottles? A New State Bill Would Require It

Hundreds of plastic water bottles are piled up inside the Recology recycling facility in San Francisco. A new bill in the state Legislature would require these bottles to be made of 100% recycled content by 2035. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

State legislators are considering a bill that would hold plastic bottle manufacturers accountable for recycling and reusing their own products.

AB 792, introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, would require plastic beverage containers in California to be made of at least 50% recycled content by 2025 and be 100% by 2035. The legislation would apply to bottles currently covered under the California Redemption Value program, including those used for soda, fruit drinks and water.

“The overall goal is to really think about how we can utilize less plastic and how we can better recycle plastic,” Ting said. “We know right now, that by 2050, if we don’t do anything else we’ll actually have more plastic in the ocean than fish.”

The bill passed the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on Monday by a vote of 8-1.

Californians used more than 12 billion plastic beverage bottles in 2017, according to the state agency CalRecycle. Bottles made out of PET plastic, also known as #1 plastic or polyethylene terephthalate, are the most commonly used and widely recycled, with more than 70% of them processed annually.

But even after all those plastic bottles are collected, cleaned and processed, there's no guarantee of a viable market for the recycled plastic. That’s one thing the bill's authors hope to address.

“[Bottle manufacturers] are very fond of touting the recyclability of those bottles,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that supports the bill. “This legislation would compel them to put their money where their mouth is and buy the plastic back and use it to make new plastic bottles.”

Coca-Cola revealed in March that it produces 3 million tons of plastic packaging every year — the equivalent of 200,000 bottles per minute. According to its latest filing with CalRecycle, only 9% of its soda bottles currently include post-consumer recycled plastic. The company has pledged to make its bottles and cans out of at least 50% recycled materials by 2030.

Meanwhile, Danone, which owns Evian mineral water, has pledged to make all its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic by 2025. And according to Ting, California-based Naked Juice, which is owned by PepsiCo, already uses bottles with 100% recycled content.

Still, at a hearing before the Natural Resources Committee on Monday, representatives of the bottling and beverage industries expressed concerns with the legislation.

“We want to see recycled content,” said Fredericka McGee, head of California government affairs with the American Beverage Association. But, she added, the timeline proposed in the bill was too accelerated.

“The numbers that are outlined in AB 729 are simply not reachable,” she said.

Dennis Albiani, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said that the law could have the unintended consequence of driving manufacturers away from using plastic in favor of materials that are even harder to recycle.

“What we don’t want to do is to [have] a regrettable substitution situation where you have things like this,” he said, holding up an empty container of boxed water.

He described that packaging as containing three different materials — paper, a plastic liner and a plastic cap. “This is a very unrecyclable package,” Albiani said.

But Richard Costa, director of sustainability at CarbonLite, one of California’s largest plastics recyclers, said the legislation is necessary to encourage manufacturers to use more recycled material.

“We must set new standards to push industry to reutilize more,” Costa told the committee. “We are great at recycling. We need reutilization.”

Currently the cost of recycling most bottles is greater than their scrap value, or the value of what the recycled plastic can be sold for, according to Murray of Californians Against Waste. Based on reports filed voluntarily by bottle manufacturers, he estimates that plastic beverage bottles sold today contain only about 15% recycled content.

AB 792 would hold those manufacturers more accountable, said Murray. “We need to create processing infrastructure and manufacturing infrastructure to close the loop on plastic packaging.”

Even with California’s high rates of recycling, more than 3 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills every year, according to CalRecycle.

“We know who is paying the cost,” said Ting. “The environment is paying the cost. The taxpayer is paying the cost because we have to clean it up.”

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AB 792 is one of several bills before the Legislature this year aimed at reducing plastic consumption statewide. SB 54 and AB 1080 would require that at least 75% of single-use packaging and products sold in California be recyclable or compostable by 2030.

California was the first state to ban single-use plastic bags at retail stores with a law that took effect in 2016. Last year, the state cracked down on the use of plastic straws in restaurants and passed another law requiring that all food service packaging in state-owned facilities be reusable, recyclable or compostable.

While California has led the way in reducing the use of plastic, recyclers have been scrambling because China — once the primary buyer for recycled plastic — last year stopped accepting most imports of plastic and paper scrap.

Ting’s bill now goes before the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

April 18: This story was corrected to reflect that AB 792 passed the Assembly Natural Resources Committee by a vote of 8-1, not 4-1 as originally stated. 

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