Plastic bottles piled on the floor at the Recology recycling center in San Francisco on Sept.6, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)
Update 12:00 a.m. Monday, Sept. 16: During the early morning hours Saturday, California's legislative session ended with lawmakers failing to pass legislation aimed at dramatically reducing plastic pollution from common manufactured goods like utensils, packaging and beverage lids.
The proposed legislation, companion bills AB 1080 and SB 54, was a first-in-the-nation attempt at requiring plastic manufacturers to take responsibility for the fate of their single-use products, many of which end up in landfills and oceans.
Because the session ended without lawmakers voting on the measures, they can be taken up again next year, and supporters vowed to pick them back up.
Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for Oceana, a major California environmental group, said that it’s time for policymakers and companies to take action to curb the production of plastic items that people use once and toss.
"This is a corporate-driven crisis, and it's up to policymakers to ensure the onus falls on companies to clean it up," Leavitt said in a statement emailed to reporters. "While today's lack of action is disappointing, this fight is not over."
The legislation would have required companies to ensure that their products are recyclable or else face having them potentially banned.
The bill was fiercely opposed by industry groups, which saw a threat to their bottom line. The industry argued that complying with the legislation would be unfeasible and end up as an added cost to consumers.
The proposed rules set a deadline of 2030 for several new requirements on manufacturers. First, all of California’s plastic forks, bowls and other utensils that are routinely used once and discarded must be recyclable or compostable; companies must reduce waste from plastic packaging by 75%; and single-use products made from unrecyclable material will be banned.
With recycling centers closing across the state and China no longer accepting soiled plastic from the U.S., the bill signals a growing recognition from lawmakers that California faces a recycling crisis and pervasive plastic pollution.
The Legislature passed another plastics bill, AB 792, that establishes a minimum recycled content level in plastic bottles.
Julia Stein, a supervising attorney with UCLA’s environmental law clinic, said AB 1080 and SB 54 are attempts to comprehensively address plastic pollution, and that industry groups are concerned California could be a bellwether. “That’s what is spurring the industry opposition to this bill," Stein said.
Business lobbying has already resulted in changes. Two of the bills' authors, Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, and Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, released amendments meant to appease critics and reluctant lawmakers who worried the state’s recycling infrastructure could not support the additional materials resulting from the new rules, and who were concerned about a shortage of food-safe plastic.
Originally, the bill automatically banned a product if a company couldn’t show that the material met the recycling requirements. Now, CalRecycle, the state agency that will administer the rules, must initiate a review process before a product is disallowed. The agency can also issue a penalty of up to $50,000 per day, but can give a company as long as two years to meet the regulations.
Mark Murray, executive director of the environmental advocacy organization Californians Against Waste, which lobbied for the bill, acknowledged the changes were necessary to secure votes.
“We feel really good about the current administration and the current department, but it does add an additional step, which will add time,” Murray said.
Plenty of Opposition
After the bills’ authors amended the legislation, the California Grocers Association dropped its opposition, the Los Angeles Times reported.
A separate organization, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, signaled it was open to a compromise.
But Mike Gruber, vice president of government affairs for the group, said it's unhappy with the recent changes and opposes the bill. “The size and the scope of the bill has dramatically increased,” he said. “We have major concerns about the state’s ability to implement it.”
The group supports recycling goals, Gruber said, "but there needs to be more discussion of California’s broken recycling system, and that needs to be fixed."
The bill is drawing a lot of attention from outside the state, says Jennie Romer, an attorney with the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative.
“The whole country is looking at California to see whether this is going to pass, and there's a lot riding on it right now,” she said. "The plastic industry is going to go down swinging, for sure.”
In a letter opposing the bill , the Southwest California Legislative Council, a regional association of business groups, called it a “logistical nightmare” and said it would be “impossible to track products from cradle to the grave.” The group also said the measure would raise the cost of goods.
The Western Plastics Association dropped its opposition to the bill after the amendments were introduced in September.
The list of the bill's supporters includes Sierra Club California, Natural Resources Defense Council, SEIU, Ocean Conservancy and many other public advocacy groups, as well as city agencies and governmental bodies like the San Francisco Department of the Environment and the Los Angeles City Council.
Supporters say the plastic industry isn’t always arguing in good faith, and that some groups are being deceptive.
Murray, of Californians Against Waste, called out one industry-backed organization with a disingenuous name as an example.
In recent months, Californians for Recyling and the Environment circulated social media posts with links to a web page promoting the idea that the legislation “threatens to negatively impact the availability, affordability and quality of many products California families rely on for our health and well-being.” The web page includes graphics of baby and pet food.
“That’s a bridge too far,” Murray said. “In terms of trying to make an argument. Were we unsafe before we didn’t have all this plastic packaging?”
The group’s state lobbying records names its president as Philip Rozenski, who is also the vice president of public affairs for Novolex, a U.S. manufacturer of plastic packaging.
Rozenski also served as the policy lead for another industry-backed group with a name connoting sustainability. The American Progressive Bag Alliance raised $6.1 million in an unsuccessful fight against a California ban on plastic bags in 2016, according to the Sacramento Bee.
An email request to Novolex to speak with Rozenski was answered by a spokesperson for Californians for Recycling and the Environment. Micah Grant said the bill’s recycling targets are “simply infeasible” and that the Legislature should “hit the pause button.”
Grant also referred KQED to a member of the group, William Smart, president of the Southern California Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Smart said lawmakers should “slow down” and examine the impacts of the regulations on communities of color.
“African Americans use a lot of these products, and we want to make sure good alternatives are in place,” he said.
Eric Potashner, director of strategic affairs for Recology, a San Francisco-based waste management company, which lobbied for the legislation, said the plastics industry was “throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
The plastic problem extends well beyond the state. Right now, 335 million tons -- that’s 670 billion pounds -- of plastic are produced each year, and only about 9% is recycled, according to sources compiled in the bill.
A UC Santa Barbara study conducted in 2017 found that half of all the plastic ever produced was manufactured in the previous 13 years.
Plastic is an incredibly durable material. A plastic fork, for example, that makes its way into the ocean will break down over time into bits of confetti-sized-or-smaller scraps of plastic. This microplastic can eventually make its way into the food chain.
More than a million seabirds and 100,000 dolphins, seals and other marine mammals are killed every year due to plastic debris in the ocean, according to the United Nations.
This year, researchers found Monterey Bay, long considered to be an environmental success story, full of microplastic. Researchers also found scraps of the stuff in Lake Tahoe.
And according to one study, the average person in the U.S. consumes between 74,000 and 121,000 particles of plastic contained in food and beverages every year.
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