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Climate & Environment

California lawmakers fail to act on recycling bills to phase out single-use plastics

Single-use plastic containers
Two bills, Senate Bill 54 and Assembly Bill 1080, sought to eliminate 75% of single-use containers by 2030 to reduce the glut of unmarketable plastics statewide and lay the groundwork for a revamped California recycling industry.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

California lawmakers adjourned early Saturday without acting on bills that would have made their state the first to partially phase out single-use containers, with supporters unable to overcome lobbying from industry opponents.

Two bills, Senate Bill 54 and companion legislation Assembly Bill 1080, sought to eliminate 75% of single-use containers by 2030, reducing the glut of unmarketable plastics statewide and laying the groundwork for a revamped California recycling industry.

For the record:
1:23 PM, Sep. 19, 2019 This story states that Shannon Crawford is the executive director of state government affairs for the Plastics Industry Assn. She is the director.

Prior to the bills’ demise, advocates hoped California could create a template for reducing waste, including plastic bottles and containers that end up in waterways and oceans.

“We want to show that we can build a model that we can truly scale around the rest of the world,” said Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), author of SB 54. “We also need to show the rest of the world that they can and ought to be doing something about this.”

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The bills came in response to China’s decision to become more selective about the scrap it accepts from the U.S., which has created a huge glut of collected plastics and mixed paper, depressing the market for many items. With little revenue coming in, many local and state governments simply shut down their recycling programs, opting to dump previously recyclable items in landfills.

The bills zeroed in on plastics, an industry that has sidestepped recycling standards that other producers, such as glass and cardboard, must meet.

California lawmakers are weighing three bills to phase out single-use plastic containers and address the state’s recycling crisis. But industry opposition looms.

According to the bills, the United States alone discards 30 million tons of plastic each year, and global production of plastics has reached an annual tally of 335 million tons — a number expected to more than triple by 2050.

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Advocates hoped the legislation would prop up a recycling industry that at its apex only recycled a fraction of the materials collected.

“We’re only going to see more and more reports of plastic and microplastics invading the environment,” said Emily Rusch, Executive Director of CALPIRG. “We want to make sure that California is a leader and creating a path the rest of the country can follow.”

Allen, who introduced SB 54, and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), author of AB 1080, sought to slow the production of virgin plastics and other nonrecyclable goods. Some industry groups opposed the emphasis on production, arguing for exemptions and winnowing down requirements.

Legislators and proponents of the bills said they attempted to work with all sides while developing goals for waste reduction.

“We have shown ourselves to be good-faith negotiators,” said Sen. Allen.

Opposition letters submitted early in the week came from the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., waste management industries such as Athens Services and the California Refuse Recycling Council, and members of the agriculture and glass manufacturing industries.

Some were concerned by the authority granted to CalRecycle, the entity charged with overseeing compliance, and a lack of specifics about how the bill would be administered.

“We remain opposed because we think there are some fundamental flaws in the bill which would prevent it from being implemented,” said Shannon Crawford, executive director of state government affairs for the Plastics Industry Assn.

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In the final days, the bill’s authors were able to negotiate changes that garnered the support of the California Grocers Assn. and Dow Chemical, and shifted the stance of large players such as the American Chemistry Council, Proctor & Gamble and Walmart, which dropped their opposition.

Supporters were frustrated they couldn’t secure the votes as the legislative session came to an end.

“I have a personal stake in it because I’m a dad and I have a family that is going to have to live on this planet,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that helped draft the bills.

“It’s sad our natural environment is inundated with plastic particles that make our way into our water and our food. That’s an embarrassment for our generation.”

In the days leading up to the vote, environmentalists and advocates of the bills tweeted their support, brandishing a #CAMustLead hashtag. Celebrities such as Alicia Silverstone and Jeff Bridges encouraged California residents to contact their representatives.

“Californians are frustrated and concerned about the environmental, public health and financial consequences of single-use plastic waste,” said Geoff Shester, California campaign director and senior scientist at Oceana. “Inaction is not an option. We will simply have to double down our efforts in getting strong legislation passed next year.”

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Lawmakers did pass two recycling bills, AB 54 and AB 792, introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), aimed at propping up stagnating recycling markets and reducing the allowable amount of virgin plastics in beverage containers to 50% by 2030.

AB 54 will provide $5 million to fund a pilot mobile recycling project overseen by CalRecycle. Under the bill, five grants will be made available in areas highly affected by the closure of RePlanet, the state’s largest recycling center. One grant is earmarked for a rural area.

The bill will also halt, until March 2020, the fines levied on grocers required to recycle beverage containers in areas where there are no recycling centers nearby.

“We’ve been trying to solve California’s recycling problem for years,” said Ting. “AB 54 provides short-term relief while we work over the fall toward a more comprehensive fix that can start moving through the legislative process when we reconvene in January.”

AB 792 originally included a requirement that plastic bottles be made of 100% recycled materials by 2035. It was amended to implement phased-in minimums, starting with a 10% requirement in 2021 and capping at 50% by 2030.

The bill will give CalRecycle the authority to adjust minimum requirements if market conditions prevent companies from reaching them, a compromise designed to ease the bill’s passage.

Both bills now go to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto them.


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