California lawmakers want to make brands use less single-use plastic

If a bill currently under consideration passes in California, any large brand that sells products in plastic packaging will have to start planning to eliminate some of that plastic—including by switching to some reusable and refillable packaging options.

“We’ve got massive challenges on our hands with regards to plastic pollution,” says State Senator Ben Allen, who introduced the bill, known as SB 54, or the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act. As the amount of plastic packaging has grown, it’s created not only huge environmental challenges—and potential health challenges, as plastic starts to show up in living humans—but also new costs for cities trying to manage all of that waste.

“The cost of waste management has skyrocketed because of the amount of plastic that’s being pushed out into the economy,” Allen says. “It’s becoming a real problem at the local level, for local governments that are now being asked to spend more and more of their meager dollars on just managing this. And the thing is, so much of it’s unnecessary. So much of the packaging gets used literally just once. And then [it’s] tossed out with long-term consequences.”

The bill “would be the strongest plastic legislation you’ve ever seen in the United States,” says Anja Brandon, U.S. plastic policy analyst at the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, who contributed to the bill text. A few other states, beginning with Maine, have recently put in place “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) laws that require brands to pay to help recycle the packaging they create.

The California bill goes a step further, saying that producers will also have to cut the amount of plastic packaging and foodware by 25% over the next decade. As much as 10% of the packaging will have to be eliminated without being replaced by a different material, forcing companies to adopt new models like reusable packaging.

“This source reduction piece is really precedent setting,” Brandon says.

Still, some other environmental groups argue that the bill doesn’t quite go far enough; it doesn’t ban polystyrene foam packaging, for example. (It does require a 20% polystyrene recycling rate by 2025, which the Ocean Conservancy says would create a de facto ban since recycling programs for the material are limited.) Other advocates are pushing for a ballot measure instead, which would ban foam packaging and could give the state more control over the whole program. If the ballot measure moves forward, Californians will vote on it in November.

The bill is ambitious, Allen says, noting, “The whole idea is that we are not going to be able to recycle our way out of this problem. Recycling is an important part of the conversation. But at the end of the day, it’s much better for us to reduce the amount of unnecessary plastics out in the market in the first place than try to find a way to get them collected, sorted, recycled, and turned into something else.

“It’s a process that is expensive, time consuming, energy intensive, and imperfect even under the best of circumstances,” Allen continues. For the products that need plastic packaging, he adds, “we do want to find a way to ensure that they’re collected and recycled. But there’s a lot out there that’s unnecessary.”

The bill is designed to nudge companies to find better alternatives to single-use plastic. “Through these mandates, and through the EPR requirements, we know that producers are going to have to take a step back and actually evaluate all of their packaging and packaging decisions, and update them to be part of a circular economy,” Brandon says.

Some companies are already voluntarily making changes, from startups selling hand soap refills in the form of tablets packaged in compostable paper to giants like Unilever experimenting with reusable packaging for everything from deodorant to ice cream. But the amount of single-use packaging is still growing, as is the amount of plastic trash that makes it into the environment: 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, and at least 14 million tons of it end up in the ocean.

The bill would require companies to measure the amount of plastic packaging they’re currently using, and work with other producers to make a plan that is approved by CalRecycle, the branch of the California Environmental Protection Agency that handles recycling. Producers would also have to help fund recycling infrastructure, and would pay an additional $500 million per year over the next 10 years to help clean up plastic pollution in the environment and in disadvantaged communities.

Any single-use plastic packaging that’s still produced will have to be either recyclable with current systems or compostable.

“That’s huge—we know that so many of the plastics on the market right now are not only not recyclable but sometimes actively hinder recycling, if we’re thinking about films, or multi-material plastics, things like that,” Brandon says. “So this will force a huge redesign in how we package materials.”

Producers will also have to meet a 65% recycling rate for plastic by 2032. (Right now, the overall plastic recycling rate in the U.S. is around 5% to 6%.)

Ocean Conservancy scientists estimate that the bill, if passed, would reduce 23 million tons of plastic in the state over the next decade, or nearly 26 times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge. It could also begin to influence policy in other areas. Advocates are pushing for a vote before June 30, which is also the deadline for deciding whether the ballot measure moves forward.

“If successful,” Brandon says, “this model of EPR plus source reduction would establish a new baseline for policies moving forward.”

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