California Governor Vetoes Ambitious Bottle Recycling Bill, Citing 'Burdensome' Amendments

Plastic bottles are piled on the floor at Recology’s facilities in the Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco on Sept. 6, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

Updated Oct. 15

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill Saturday that would have required manufacturers in California to incorporate recycled plastic into new bottles.

The measure would have mandated that plastic beverage bottles — like those used for water, soda and fruit drinks — contain a minimum of 50% recycled content by 2030, a goal that some recycling advocates said was the most ambitious in the country.

The requirements would have been phased in gradually and applied only to containers covered by the California Refund Value program, which reimburses consumers 5 to 10 cents for each aluminum, glass or plastic container brought back for recycling.

Authored by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, Assembly Bill 792 passed both state houses by wide margins. Ting expressed disappointment at the governor’s veto.

“Setting the highest minimum recycled content standards for plastic beverage containers in the entire world would have sent signals to the recycling market that California is serious about reducing plastic waste in our environment,” Ting said in a statement.

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In explaining his veto, Newsom wrote that late amendments introduced a “costly, burdensome process” to the bill.

"The waiver petitions allowed under this bill would put the burden on the state to prove to manufacturers that their products can meet recycling goals, rather than making clear that manufacturers have the responsibility to create products that can meet these goals,” Newsom wrote.

Newsom was likely referring to an amendment allowing manufacturers to appeal to an administrative judge if they fell short of the required goals, said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, an environmental group that lobbied for the bill.

Murray said the provision had been added at the behest of industry lobbying group American Beverage Association and called it a “more complicated and, frankly, convoluted enforcement mechanism” that could take authority away from the state-run agency CalRecycle.

“I understand the concerns that the administration had with the bill,” Murray said. “I am absolutely confident that between the author and the administration we are going to be able to get it right next year.”

For its part, the American Beverage Association also expressed dismay at the veto.

"We’re disappointed given that this bill balanced the need for more recycled content with the realities of the marketplace to reach the goal of improving the recycling and reducing of plastic in California," said William Dermody, a spokesman for the association.

Currently, most bottle manufacturers don’t incorporate recycled plastic into their products and instead use “virgin” plastic resin, a byproduct of fossil fuel production.

“Recycled content is competing with virgin plastics, and virgin plastics are tied very closely to the price of natural gas, which is very low right now,” said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste. “Instead of being valuable on their own, [recycled plastics] are competing against this horribly destructive, fossil fuel-based material.”

Californians have largely embraced recycling: The most common plastic beverage bottles, which are made of #1 plastic — also known as PET or polyethylene terephthalate — were recycled at a rate of 74% in 2018. That’s 9.2 billion plastic bottles that made their way back to recycling centers last year alone.

The dirty secret that has increasingly gained attention, however, is that a lot of what people were putting into their curbside blue bins or taking back to recycling centers wasn’t actually getting reused. Much of it was shipped to China, until the country stopped accepting imports of the rest of the world’s plastic waste.

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When they made the decision in 2018, Chinese officials cited the lack of a robust market, meaning not enough buyers to take recycled plastic and reuse it. Too many processors in China were illegally dumping, burning or putting into landfills the plastic they couldn’t unload.

Now policymakers and the waste and recycling industry are working to find or create domestic uses for recycled materials.

“We have enough infrastructure,” Lapis said. “What we need is a more consistent demand to support that infrastructure.”

According to voluntary filings by the state’s beverage industry in 2018, plastic bottles contained 15% recycled content overall. But that’s an average number: at the high end of the spectrum are Nestlé Waters North America at 37% and Pepsi Cola Bottling Group at 22%, while most companies, like Fiji Water or Walmart, reported using no recycled content at all.

The veto of AB 792 comes on the heels of another disappointment to the recycling industry: the stalling of companion bills AB 1080 and SB 54, which also aimed to hold manufacturers more accountable for the life cycle of the plastic products they produce.

Ting said he will take the governor’s concerns into consideration when crafting another bill next year.

“I will continue to work on this issue in the coming year and hope that we can get this across the finish line," Ting said.

For advocates, another bill might be a chance for stronger recycling rules, said Californians Against Waste’s Murray.

“The question for me is, if we bring this bill back next year, do we settle for just 50% recycled content or should we be thinking of 60%, 70% recycled content?” Murray said.

Oct. 15: This story was updated to include comment from the American Beverage Association