California passes first-in-nation plastics recycling law
In a move aimed at reducing huge amounts of plastic litter in the oceans, along roadways and other parts of the state, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a first-in-the-nation law requiring plastic beverage containers to contain an increasing amount of recycled material.
Under it, companies that produce everything from sports drinks to soda to bottled water must use 15% recycled plastic in their bottles by 2022, 25% recycled plastic by 2025, and 50% recycled plastic by 2030.
Supporters of the new law say it will help increase demand for recycled plastic, curb litter and reduce consumption of oil and gas, which are used to manufacture new plastics.
“This is the most ambitious, aggressive recycled plastics content law in the world,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a Sacramento-based environmental group.
In a legislative session hamstrung by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, the bill, AB 793 by Assemblymembers Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, and Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, was considered to be among the most significant environmental laws that passed this year.
In California, roughly 12 billion plastic bottles are sold every year. Although about 70% are recycled, often into other types of plastic packaging, more than 3 billion bottles are not recycled at all, according to state statistics. Most of those are dumped in landfills or discarded as litter in the outdoors.
After China stopped accepting many waste plastics two years ago, there has been a glut.
“We are doing a really good job of collecting things for recycling,” Murray said. “The difficult part has been finding an end-use market for it. This new law is about closing the loop. Now companies that manufacture the plastic bottles have to buy them back. They’ll have the responsibility.”
California already requires 35% of glass bottles sold in the state to be made of recycled content, and 50% of newsprint to be made from recycled content.
Some industry groups opposed the bill when it was first introduced two years ago, helping kill it then. But with an increasing number of companies committed to making recycled bottles as scientists report more and more alarming facts about plastic pollution in the oceans, and European nations imposing similar rules, their opposition has largely melted away.
“The time has come for companies to step up and help us be good environmental stewards,” Ting said. “By boosting the market for used plastics, fewer containers will end up as litter.”
Naked Juice, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, uses bottles made with 100% recycled content for all of its juices. Evian has announced that it will make all its water bottles from 100% recycled plastic by 2025.
Rather than fighting the bill, the plastics industry, container manufacturers and retailers focused efforts on a more controversial plastics pollution bill this year in Sacramento, SB54. That would have required companies to reduce the waste generated from single-use packaging like utensils, plates, cups and straws in California 75% by 2030. That drop could come through recycling, composting or reduction in the amount of packaging.
That bill failed this year and last year. Last month, environmental groups and the San Francisco garbage and recycling company Recology submitted more than 870,000 signatures for a statewide ballot measure to place a similar measure before voters in November, 2022.
Plastic waste has become one of the world’s major environmental problems.
Half the plastic that has ever existed on Earth was made in the last 13 years. Only 9% of the plastic sold every year in the United States is recycled. Up to 13 million metric tons of it ends up in the world’s ocean each year — the equivalent of a garbage truck-full being dumped into the sea every minute — where it kills fish, birds, sea turtles, whales and dolphins that eat it or become entangled by it.
Plastic lasts for hundreds of years. Making it consumes large amounts of petroleum products, which contributes to climate change. And at the current rate, one recent study found there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean in 2050 than fish, most of it broken into trillions of tiny pieces of toxic confetti.
Newsom signed the plastics law late Thursday. He also signed two other significant environmental bills.
One, AB 3214, by Assemblywoman Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara), doubles fines for oil spills to up to $1 million a day and also up to $1,000 per gallon spilled when oil companies cause spills or cover them up. It is the first time the state’s oil spill penalties have been increased in 30 years. The measure was written after a major oil spill in Santa Barbara County in 2015, when a pipeline ruptured, sending 140,000 gallons of crude oil along the coast and killing birds, dolphins and sea lions, and closing commercial fisheries for more than a month.
Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline was convicted of one felony and eight misdemeanors for failing to maintain the pipeline, along with mishandling the response to the spill. The company paid a $3 million penalty, which critics said was far too low.
The other bill, SB 1320, by Sen. Henry Stern, D-Calabasas, directs the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research to issue a study every five years documenting how climate change is affecting California, including the economic costs, as a way to inform future legislation.