California legislature rejects bills to phase out single-use plastics, for now

Two bills going through the California legislature that would have enacted the strongest plastic pollution rules in the United States—Assembly Bill (AB) 1080 and Senate Bill (SB) 54—failed to pass during the legislative session that just ended and were sent to the “inactive file.” Both are eligible to be reconsidered next year. The bills came in response to China’s National Sword action that halted the export of recycled scrap plastics, causing many local recycling programs and material recovery facilities to shut down.

Assembly Bill 1080 (California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act), authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), and Senate Bill 54, authored by Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), were the latest attempts to regulate waste reduction and reduce the production of virgin plastics. 

AB 1080 sought to eliminate 75% of single-use plastic packaging sold or distributed in California by 2030. It also would require all single-use packaging and products to be recyclable or compostable by that date and instructs CalRecycle to develop incentives and policies to encourage in-state manufacturing using recycled material generated in California, said information from Californians Against Waste. 

AB 1080 also would have required plastics manufacturers to take end-of-life responsibility for their products, “from coffee cup lids to takeout boxes to plastic packaging,” said a report on KQED news. “If the bill had passed, all of the state’s single-use plastic utensils would need to be recyclable or compostable by 2030, and companies would have reduced waste from packaging by 75%.”

Opposition to the bills came from the Grocery Manufacturers Association; waste management entities such as Athens Services and the California Refuse Recycling Council; and the agriculture and glass manufacturing industries, according to an LA Times report. Much of the concern revolved around bills that are too broad and rife with unintended consequences. 

“We remain opposed because we think there are some fundamental flaws in the bill that would prevent it from being implemented,” said Shannon Crawford, Director of State Government for the Plastics Industry Association in the LA Times article.

Crawford told PlasticsToday when asked about her comment, “While we support increased recycling in the state, this legislation was flawed because it did not address the lack of end markets or infrastructure gaps that currently exist." Advocates of the two bills had “hoped the legislation would prop up a recycling industry that at its apex only recycled a fraction of the materials collected.”

Two bills that did pass the legislature were AB 792, which establishes a minimum of 50% recycled content in plastic bottles by 2035, and AB 54, a bill that will bring temporary relief to cities feeling the financial sting from the sudden closure of recycling centers across the state. AB 54 provides $10 million for recycling centers and gives grocers a reprieve from paying some recycling fees. 

The primary problem I see in the bills that failed to pass in the legislature is similar to what I see in other bills in other states: Their “waste management” regulation often turns on banning plastic items, such as retail bags and carry-out service ware, and calling for substituting lined (wax or polyethylene) paperboard containers and cups or plastics that are believed to be biodegradable or compostable, or both, but in reality are neither. 

The alternative materials that many of these bills promote may be biodegradable over the long run but only if they are left in the open environment for several years.  Calling for a compostable alternative to recyclable service ware is only achievable if consumers can find an industrial composting facility that will accept these items—most won’t—and if municipalities offer a special collection of these items along with food and yard waste.  

Too many of these legislative actions contain all the right buzz words but little science when it comes to the realities of reducing plastic waste. That is especially true when talking about biodegradable and compostable plastics, as if these materials will just magically disappear. They won’t. 

Plastic waste in the environment can only be prevented by people who actually care about their environment enough to see that plastic items are put into a collection stream. Maybe the plastics industry should do a media ad campaign: Only you can prevent plastic pollution. Hey, it worked for Smokey the Bear!

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