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Opinion

Editorial: If California demands an end to plastic waste, the world’s manufacturers will listen. So do it already

Plastic bottles
Plastic bottles collected by volunteers in Aberdeen Harbor on the south side of Hong Kong Island in August.
(Jerome Favre / European Pressphoto Agency )

Will California show the nation how to take on the enormous problem of single-use plastic? Or will state lawmakers chicken out under heavy lobbying by plastic makers who are happy to continue to cover the world in discarded water bottles, used food wrappers and countless other pieces of disposable packaging?

We will find out soon. It’s not an overstatement to say that the fate of one of the world’s biggest sources of pollution hangs on the passage of the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) and Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica). This legislation — which will be passed or die on Friday, the last day for the Legislature to pass new bills this year — would fundamentally reshape the product packaging industry by requiring products sold in the state to be wrapped in material that is being recycled or composted at a 75% rate by 2030.

This is important because even though most plastic is theoretically recyclable, very little of it actually gets recycled. Only about 6% of the some 83 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced has been recycled. The rest can be found somewhere in our environment, possibly as tiny particles in the ocean or the food you’re eating. And that gap is likely to grow. Even while plastic production has increased, the global demand for used plastic bottles and bags to turn into something else has all but dried up. If the bill becomes law, manufacturers over the next decade will have to build recycling plants for their plastic detergent containers and potato chip bags (creating manufacturing jobs! President Trump’s gonna love this law), or repackage them in a material that is compostable or already recycled at a high rate, such as glass.

And if California — which has the fifth-largest economy on the planet — demands sustainable packaging, the world’s manufacturers will listen.

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What’s remarkable is how many organizations that stand to be affected have dropped their initial opposition, including the California Retailers Association, the American Beverage Association and the American Chemistry Council. The state’s grocers have gone one step further and now support the bill, which is really astonishing considering that grocery stores would see many of the products on their shelves reconfigured under this bill. Those businesses deserve a lot of credit for not standing in the way of a law that, while good for the planet, would force a big change to their operations.

Now it’s time for legislators and the governor to show their support. They have an important choice to make: They can show the world how to tackle the scourge of plastic trash. Or they can demonstrate how fear of political fallout is the biggest obstacle to our environmental challenges. No pressure.


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