California Law Sets The Pace To Reduce Plastic Waste
Plastic production has grown in the past several decades to create new standards of convenience, safety, and cost reduction measures. Manufacturers who have benefited from all of the above without being tasked to deal with its end-of-life measures are now being pressured to reduce and pivot to supply more sustainable options.
The facts are clear, concise, and indisputable; the United States created more plastic waste than any other country, with one of the lowest recycling rates at just 5% of all waste in 2021. Our plastics crisis has quickly become our climate crisis contributing to its degradation in every part of its life cycle.
Recent restrictions bolstered by new California legislation will likely set the tone for the nation, changing how we produce, consume, and recycle over the next decade.
Breaking Down California’s Fight On Plastic Waste
California Senate Bill 54
In June 22022, California’s Governor, Gavin Newsom, cemented significant changes ahead with new legislation targeted at plastic production. The legislation was negotiated by environmentalists, plastic industry representatives, and lawmakers to bring sweeping restrictions to California, limiting plastic use to only recyclable or compostable packaging by 2032.
The main tenants of Senate Bill 54 include:
- A 25% reduction in the sale of plastic packaging by 2032.
- A minimum of 30% of plastic must be recycled by 2028.
- A minimum of 65% of single-use packaging must be recycled by 2032.
- Plastic producers in the state will be required to pay $500 million each year for ten years starting in 2027 to be collected into the California Plastic Pollution Mitigation Fund, which will ultimately help low-income communities affected by plastic pollution.
- Establishes an accountability group to include industry representatives to operate a new recycling system run by the state.
The latter point, to create a state-run recycling program, subtly acknowledges that current recycling practices are inefficient and underused. As a result, many environmental groups have changed messaging over the years from encouraging an inefficient recycling mindset to one focused on supporting reduction and compostable materials to fight the plastic waste crisis.
What Are The Anticipated Outcomes?
The bill was drafted in collaboration with The Ocean Conservancy, who estimates the impact will total 23 million tons of plastics being eliminated over the next decade.
In addition, a ripple impact is anticipated as suppliers located in California also produce for other states as well as internationally. This means that the knock-on effect will be more recyclable materials nationwide and beyond.
All eyes are currently on the supply and logistical demands of fossil fuels worldwide, which have seen downward pressure from flailing worldwide economies, political firewalls, and environmental concerns.
According to the New York Times, the plastic industry is expected to consume 20% of the oil produced worldwide by 2050, a significant amount when a growing climate crisis exacerbated by its production is at the cusp of no return. Our plastic and climate crises are now inextricably combined, making the production of plastic a number one topic when examining a state’s environmental impact goals and mitigations.
Problems With The Law
California’s new law is a step towards plastic reduction but is not without flaws. The main pain point centers around an emphasis on recycling, which California has long struggled to make efficient. From a country-wide perspective, recycling has plunged from 9.5% of plastic waste diverted in 2014 to just 5% being recycled in 2021, according to a recent EPA report.
In addition, a clause of the new law puts new recycling measures in the hands of the plastics industry, allowing for potential loopholes to be created.
How The Plastics Industry Feels About Senate Bill 54
The American Chemistry Council worked hard to derail Senate Bill 54, noting that the measures would be difficult to achieve in the timeframe mandated. The Plastics Industry Association also voiced disappointment over a lack of compromise, reiterating the value that plastics bring to businesses and the citizens of California.
However, the Plastics Industry Association went on to state that the industry is committed to designing more sustainable products in the future that are built for recycling.
How The Plastics Industry Can Comply
California’s overhaul of plastic production leaves producers with several options to comply. Regulation mandates can be reached by minimizing the size and use of packaging, switching to refillable container sales models, or replacing plastics with recyclable aluminum or paper.
The shift in regulations will likely also push innovation in materials forward to include new alternatives over the next several years as producers seek to comply with the new measures.
How Does Senate Bill 54 Stack Up Against Other Worldwide Efforts
The law’s mandate to curb plastic production by 25% by 2032 is a first in US regulatory efforts. While other nations have placed restrictions on the types and recyclability of materials, California’s new legislation is the first law of its kind that demands a concise reduction in the amount of plastic produced, which is expected to triple by 2050.
The European Union remains the world leader in regulating single-use plastics, banning ten types, but is still in the process of reducing the total amount of plastic altogether. The EU is also still behind in setting mandatory recycling targets for recycled content.
Soon after the bill was announced in California, India announced a ban on single-use plastics effective immediately with the exception of shopping bags. As the second most populous country on earth it is significant legislation.
One week prior to California’s legislation, the government of Canada published the Single-use Plastics Prohibition Regulations, which prohibits the manufacture, import, sale, and eventually export of 6 categories of single-use plastic items.
The circular economy is becoming a goal at the forefront of every major governing country in the world. Environmentally motivated regulations will bind manufacturers as the world seeks to reduce climate footprints and will need to innovate and pivot to contribute to this common goal.