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Opinion

Editorial: California needs to stop playing small ball on single-use plastic. Swing for the fences, already

Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel chain, says it plans to phase out the small plastic toiletry bottles it has provided to guests.
Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel chain, says it plans to phase out the small plastic toiletry bottles it has provided to guests, such as the shampoo and conditioner bottles shown here at SpringHill Suites, a hotel it operates in New Orleans.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Among the many Legislature-approved bills awaiting action by Gov. Gavin Newsom before the Oct. 13 deadline is a bill that targets one easily dispensable source of disposable plastic: the small bottles of soap, shampoo and lotion that hotels stock in guest rooms.

Like most single-use containers, these small bottles will probably be tossed into the trash after they deliver their payload, joining the ever-growing pile of plastic that is filling up landfills and oceans. This temporary convenience adds to a permanent problem that the world has begun to recognize, and it would be nice to see these bottles replaced with refillable containers.

Nevertheless, Newsom should veto the bill that mandates the switch and send it back to the Legislature with an admonishment to stop playing small ball. It’s time for lawmakers to focus their bill-passing energy on a law that would offer a comprehensive strategy to reduce all single-use plastic.

Specifically, the governor should tell legislators to stop dragging their feet and pass the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act as soon as the legislative session restarts in January. This transformational plastic-reduction bill could serve as a desperately needed blueprint, showing the world how to attack the broader disposable plastic problem without demonizing one industry or one relatively insignificant source of waste. Instead, it would require that product packaging for items sold in California be recycled 75% of the time a decade from now or be phased out.

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Despite having a broad support base and momentum, this important bill fizzled before the session ended on Sept. 13. This is not to say the hotel bottle bill — AB 1162 by Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D- San Jose) — is inherently bad, only that it’s too narrow and maybe a bit unfair. There’s no evidence that the lodging business is any more wasteful than other industries that use single-use plastic. Yet the bill would prohibit large hotels from stocking rooms with lotion and shampoo in plastic containers smaller than six ounces starting in 2023. Smaller hotels would have an extra year to comply. Hotel proprietors could hand out travel-size personal care products if asked, but otherwise would face escalating fines if they continued to stock their rooms with containers smaller than 6 ounces.

Furthermore, this law isn’t even necessary, as Newsom (a hotelier himself) surely knows. The lodging industry has begun moving to refillable containers on its own. Annoying consumers by taking away small conveniences with no appreciable reason isn’t smart politics, let alone policy. The only winners with AB 1162 are conservative radio talk show hosts who will relish a new talking point on California’s nanny state ways. And in this case, they won’t be wrong to criticize the state’s lawmakers. If you are going to back heavy-handed laws, they ought to be in the service of substantial benefit.

That was the case with last year’s law restricting restaurants from handing out single-use plastic straws unless requested. While straws account for just a fraction of the plastic waste generated every year, the ban was useful to raise awareness of America’s plastic throwaway culture by telling the story of one ubiquitous item we collectively use millions of times every day but rarely think about. It worked, and now consumers and businesses understand that our current approach to recycling isn’t ridding the world of the detritus of our consumerism, including untold tons of plastic food wrappings, bags, water bottles and takeout containers. They want to be provided answers, not to be penalized for the failure of policymakers to force a comprehensive switch to more sustainable sources of packaging.

Newsom had no big environmental wins this year and one big black mark: his decision to veto SB 1, a bill that would extend environmental protections that are being rolled back by the Trump administration. Here’s one way he can make up some lost ground.


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