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Opinion

Editorial: California has to stop thinking small in the fight against plastic trash

lifestyle
Small bottles of lotion, shampoo and conditioner in a Fresno, California bed and breakfast in 2007.
(Eric Paul Zamora / MCT)

There’s no doubt that the tiny plastic shampoo and lotion bottles provided to hotel customers are extravagantly wasteful. At most, they contain enough product for a couple of uses before they are tossed. But they represent just a small drop in the ocean-sized environmental disaster of single-use plastic items that are piling up in landfills and clogging the seas.

Yet these hotel toiletry bottles are the sole focus of AB 1162, a bill that passed through the California Assembly last month and is headed for consideration in the state Senate. The measure would prohibit all hotels and other lodging establishments in the state from handing out such bottles unless requested, starting in 2024.

Lawmakers should not waste their energy on such a trivial law. Besides, the hotel industry is already moving away from these personal-size toiletries. Big chains, such as Marriott and Holiday Inn Express, are switching to larger, refillable containers.

Banning plastic grocery bags and beverage straws was the right way at the time to focus the public’s attention on the problem of single-use plastic products and containers. But now that people understand that whales are choking to death on plastic bags and other plastic products, and that every piece of plastic ever made still exists in some form, lawmakers can and should turn their focus to bigger, more disruptive actions.

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Happily, there is legislation also progressing through the Legislature that takes a more comprehensive approach. SB 54 by Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) and its Assembly companion bill, AB 1080 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), would establish the groundbreaking California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, a law with a complicated name but a simple goal: slashing all single-use plastic waste in California by 75% over the next decade.

If we want to stop covering the Earth in discarded plastic trash before the end of the century, we’re going to have to stop addressing the problem with minuscule, penny-ante policies.

In its current form, the proposed law requires manufacturers of any kind of disposable plastic — mainly product packaging — to achieve a 20% recycling rate by 2024, gradually increasing to a 75% rate by 2030. This sounds like a low initial bar, but the reality is that many plastics are virtually unrecyclable, and beyond that, the market for recyclables has contracted dramatically. So the practical effect of the law is that many manufacturers would have to invest significantly in equipment, facilities and programs to increase their recycling rate — or their product couldn’t be sold in California.

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Both bills are working their way through their respective houses, despite the not-inconsiderable pushback from plastics manufacturers and business trade groups. Some of the issues that have been raised are valid and should be addressed, such as the ambiguity of some key terms (just what does “single-use” mean?) and whether food safety might be compromised. But the legislation should not be diluted with so many concessions that it becomes toothless. The reality is that the problem of plastic trash is too big to solve without serious disruption to how products are made, packaged and discarded.

How big? Roughly estimated, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced in the last 70 years, and less than 10% of it has been recycled. Most of it has ended up in landfills or in the ocean, where it is killing sea animals that mistake the plastic bits for food. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade like organic material. It breaks down into microscopic particles that have invaded every corner of the planet, including our food and drinking water.

These two proposed laws create a stark choice for California — and for the U.S., which has been shamefully slow to address the single-use plastic problem. Either the state can continue to think small by banning the annoying plastic product of the moment, or it can step up to be the desperately needed model for plastic trash reduction the nation needs.

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