California Weighs How to Lighten Its Plastic Problem

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A sorting line at Recology’s material recovery facility at Pier 96 in San Francisco, where recyclables are sorted and processed.  (Recology)

A pair of ambitious bills currently making their way through the state legislature aim to stem the flood of plastic in stores, landfills and increasingly in the environment by placing aggressive new regulations on how plastics are manufactured and recycled in California.

Senate Bill 54 and its companion Assembly Bill 1080 would require that manufacturers and retailers slash the amount of waste generated by single-use packaging and products by 75% over the next decade — and to do it by making their products recyclable or compostable, or to simply not make them in the first place.

The bills target items that are typically used only once before being thrown away, like plastic forks, takeout food containers, or the packaging for everyday items like toothbrushes or toys. A lot of it can’t be recycled because of the type of plastic it’s made from or because it contains mixed materials.

State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who co-authored AB 1080, tweeted Thursday, “Plastic #pollution is a global crisis and #CAMustLead the nation in fighting against it,” after her bill passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee. SB 54 passed the Appropriations Committee on the Senate side, also on Thursday.

An estimated 2.37 million tons of plastic material ended up in California landfills in 2017, according to the state agency CalRecycle. And the list of plastics in the dump is long and varied — cups and lids, trays for cookies or raw meat, bags for potato chips or bread, pouches for baby food or refillable soap, just to name a few.

“Our mission is to send almost nothing to landfill,” said Eric Potashner, Vice President of San Francisco’s waste management company, Recology, which is backing the legislation and gave input on its drafting.

After achieving a 75% reduction in single-use plastic waste by 2030, the legislation would ramp up the goal even further: after 2030, all these types of products would need to be recyclable or compostable.

The goals set forth in the bills are aggressive, and they would place more responsibility on the plastics industry to help account for the total lifecycle of their products. A separate bill written by state Assemblyman Phil Ting would require that beverage bottle manufacturers buy back recycled plastic and use them in new bottles.

But being recyclable and actually getting recycled aren’t the same thing, so the bills have a provision for that, too: Manufacturers would need to show that their goods are getting recycled at a rate that starts at 20% in 2022 and gradually increases to 75% in 2030.

Those are also ambitious goals. Californians have embraced the recycling of beverage containers, thanks to the state’s CRV program, which offers cash incentives to return bottles and cans. An encouraging 88% of aluminum cans and around 70% of #1 and #2 plastic bottles (overall what most water and soda comes packaged in) are being recycled, according to the state’s most recent report. But the rates plummet for all other types of plastic: only 8% of #5 plastic, commonly used in yogurt containers, for example, makes its way back to recyclers.

Then there’s the question of whether there’s even a market for many types of recycled plastics. For anything besides #1 and #2 plastics, the answer is “not really,” according to Martin Bourque, executive director of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, which started the nation’s first curbside recycling program.

“For years, it was — collect all plastics in a really big blue bin and hope that somewhere in the land of rainbows and unicorns it’s all being sorted,” Bourque said. “The reality is much grittier.”


Representatives of the plastics industry agree there are challenges in getting more plastics recycled.

“One of the reasons why the recycling rate [of plastic] is lower is because there's not an end market to actually send a lot of the materials to,” said Shannon Crawford, Director of State Government Affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, which has registered its opposition to both bills. “There needs to be an increased investment in infrastructure in the state and increased investment in market development.”

While the bill could encourage the development of a more robust market for recycled plastic, the details of implementing the bill would fall to CalRecycle, officially known as the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

That lack of clarity is one reason why the American Chemistry Council is opposed to the bill.

“We are not objecting to what they're trying to do in terms of getting more material out of landfill and into recycling and composting streams,” said Tim Shestek, senior director of state affairs for the Council. “We're opposed to the bill just because of so many open-ended, unanswered questions that are out there right now.”

Shestek pointed at a number of plastic products that would be hard to replace, including medical equipment, diapers, feminine hygiene products, and even ball point pens. He said that food safety was also a concern, if the right type of plastic can’t be used to package certain foods.

The American Chemistry Council hopes to work with legislators to refine the bill. “We're hoping to sit down between now and the end of the year to try to work something out that makes sense for recycling, for composting, for the environment, for manufacturers,” Shestek said.

Bales of #2 plastic, also known as High-density polyethylene or HDPE are generally seen used in laundry detergent bottles and milk jugs
Bales of #2 plastic, also known as high-density polyethylene or HDPE are generally seen used in laundry detergent bottles and milk jugs (Recology)

Still, the time may be right in the court of public opinion. Support for reducing plastic waste is building, fueled by stark images of whales with bellies filled with plastic and mountains of plastic trash polluting poor communities in Asia.

Some enterprising companies are trying to cash in on the trend towards more sustainable packaging — a new startup called Loop plans to offer name brand products in specially designed refillable packaging. Häagen-Dazs, Pantene and Clorox are among the companies that have signed up to partner with Loop, which is offering to let you reserve a spot “in line” before the company has even launched.

In Europe, you can try water pouches made out of seaweed and soon bring empty bottles back to the Body Shop in exchange for store coupons. And in San Francisco, entertainment venues like The Midway and The Fillmore are offering concertgoers alternatives to plastic-bottled water.

The language of SB 54 and AB 1080 are essentially the same and were written in tandem to ease their parallel passage through both houses of the state Legislature. The bills now head to the Senate and Assembly floors for consideration.