New California ballot measure would ban Styrofoam food packaging statewide, force industry to reduce plastic litter

Setting the stage for a major environmental battle over a growing pollution issue, a coalition of environmental groups has qualified a statewide ballot measure that would require plastic packaging sold in California to be recyclable or reusable.

The measure, which will appear on California’s November 2022 ballot, also requires companies that make plastic packaging — everything from fast-food containers to packaging that holds toys and other products inside cardboard boxes — to reduce the amount they sell in California 25% by 2030.

Practically speaking, that could mean companies would have to set up “take back” programs or fund recycling efforts. They would almost certainly have to discontinue certain types of hard-to-recycle plastic and use less packaging in general.

“Every Californian understands that we are drowning in plastic,” said Jay Ziegler, external affairs director for the California chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “Plastics are choking the environment from Lake Tahoe to our beaches on the coast. This initiative is about stopping the tide of plastic pollution.”

Although climate change has received the bulk of the attention in the past decade, plastic waste has become one of the world’s major environmental problems.

Half the plastic that has ever existed on Earth was made in the last 13 years. Only 9% of the plastic sold every year in the United States is recycled. Up to 13 million metric tons of it ends up in the world’s oceans each year — the equivalent of a garbage truck-full being dumped into the sea every minute — where it kills fish, birds, sea turtles, whales and dolphins that eat it or become entangled by it. At the current rate, one recent study found there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean in 2050 than fish, most of it broken into trillions of tiny pieces of toxic confetti.

If approved by a majority of voters, the measure would ban Styrofoam and other polystyrene food packaging, such as clam-shell boxes for take-out food, at stores, supermarkets and restaurants. Some cities already have a ban in place, but the ballot measure would make it statewide. In addition, it would impose a 1-cent fee on each item of plastic packaging, paid by packaging manufacturers, which could raise $1 billion or more annually to fund recycling efforts, beach cleanups and other pollution programs around the state.

The measure is opposed by the plastics industry. Tim Shestek, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association that includes large companies such as Dow, DuPont, 3M and ExxonMobil Chemical, called the measure “a massive taxpayer-funded giveaway of billions of dollars to fund a variety of special interest pet projects.”

He said it threatens small businesses like restaurants and that the plastics industry is committed to reducing plastic waste.

“Plastics are indispensable to the modern way of life,” he said, “and are critical to achieving sustainability goals, like light-weighting vehicles, making buildings and homes more energy-efficient and reducing food waste — all of which help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Ziegler noted the measure would only affect plastic packaging. It also does not affect beverage containers, which are regulated already by the state’s bottle recycling laws.

The measure qualified for the ballot late Monday after supporters turned in more than 900,000 signatures, exceeding the 623,212 required.

The ballot showdown comes after bills aimed at reducing plastic pollution have been killed in the state Legislature in recent years over opposition from industry groups.

“The problem is only getting worse,” said Aimee David, vice president of Ocean Conservation Policy Strategy at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is supporting the measure. “Industry is producing more plastic packaging than ever, and recycling isn’t making a dent. California needs to step up in a big way.”

Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a first-in-the-nation law requiring plastic beverage containers to contain an increasing amount of recycled material. Under it, companies that produce everything from soda to bottled water must use 15% recycled plastic in their bottles by 2022, 25% by 2025 and 50% by 2030.

But efforts to require plastic manufacturers to take back their products have failed to pass. The ballot measure goes farther than recent bills, with the 1-cent tax on plastic packaging materials. Such a tax would have required a two-thirds vote to pass in the Legislature. But under state law, it can pass with a majority vote as part of a statewide ballot measure.

In 2016, California voters banned single-use plastic grocery bags, approving Proposition 67 by 53-47%. The plastics industry spent more than $6 million in that campaign, twice what environmental groups spent.

Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, the state’s leading recycling advocacy organization, said the problem now is that many types of plastic, particularly the kind bearing the circular arrow logo that has numbers 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, is not recyclable because there is little demand and few markets for it. Residents dutifully put it in their blue recycling bins, it gets sorted at city collection centers but then is thrown away.

“It goes on a very expensive trip to the landfill,” he said.

If the ballot measure passes, and manufacturers are responsible for getting rid of it, they’ll stop using much of it, he predicted.

“They’ll have to take responsibility,” he said. “Right now they are not responsible. They are profiting from pollution with zero accountability.”

In this Oct. 22, 2019, photo, plastic and other marine debris sits on the beach on Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

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