Sweeping recycling, plastics bills await the green light from Gov. Newsom

A sweeping package of bills aimed at reducing plastic waste and improving recycling efforts, approved by the Legislature this month, are being celebrated by environmentalists and trash-reduction activists as they await final consideration by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The six bills include a measure that would expand plastic straw restrictions to plastic utensils and condiment packages — and would apply not only to full-service restaurants but also take-out and fast food restaurants, which are currently exempted from the straw law.

Other legislation would provide new incentives for reusing glass beverage bottles, crack down on misleading recycling labeling, and reduce the export of plastics that end up in foreign landfills.

“It’s definitely a landmark year, both in terms of the number and scope of the bills that were passed, not to mention the level of interest among legislators,” said Nick Lapis of Californians Against Waste, a 44-year-old non-profit that advocates for more recycling as well as less single-use packaging and products.

“The plastics issue, especially, seems to be snowballing, which is great since the problem is also growing exponentially and major reform is needed.”

However, the most wide-reaching proposal, SB 54, was tabled for the third consecutive year in the face of opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce and a host of packaging and plastics interests. Those groups say the bill would unreasonably raise costs on businesses and consumers.

That proposal, by Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, would require all single-use, disposable packaging and single-use, disposable food ware to be compostable or recyclable.

Sander Kushen of CALPIRG, a consumer advocacy group, applauded the bills approved this year while expressing disappointment that Allen’s measure again stalled.

“More should be done,” he said. “This is some good progress, but we’re going to keep fighting for bolder, stronger bills.”

Environment California’s Laura Deehan agreed, saying that too much of California’s waste now ends up in nature. A study this year by the environmental group Oceana documented 1,792 cases where sea animals died as a result of waste-related strangulation and drowning, and plastic ingestion, which disrupts digestion and leads to starvation for a number of species.

“The passage of SB 54 would … ensure we put wildlife over waste by making producers responsible for the trash they produce,” Deehan said.

An allen spokesperson said the senator hopes to pass the bill in the first half of next year. She noted that if that effort fails, a citizens initiative with similar provisions already has enough verified signatures to qualify for the November 2022 ballot.

Recycling troubles

In 1989, the state established the Integrated Waste Management Act, which called for reduction or recycling of 75% of solid waste to by 2020. Over the past four years China — long the primary destination for California’s recyclables — phased out its import of the trash, in part because much of what they were receiving was not being recycled. That undercut California’s waste-reduction efforts, which were already falling short.

Several other countries followed China’s lead, and California was left with inadequate infrastructure to deal with the waste it once exported. In 2019, the state had reduced the flow of solid waste by just 37% from the 1989 benchmark, according to Allen.

Meanwhile, a new study from the Ocean Conservancy reports that 69% of most commonly collected items over the past 35 years of the International Coastal Cleanup are “effectively unrecyclable.” Nearly half of those were food and beverage-related, and roughly half were plastic.

“Six in 10 Americans made incorrect assumptions about the recyclability of common plastic food delivery items,” according to the report.

This year’s legislation is intended to reduce the flow of trash to landfills, reduce the amount of single-use plastic that ends up in the ocean and make it clearer to consumers what packaging and products are truly recyclable.

Will the governor sign them into law?

“We addressed all the issues the administration raised during the legislative process, so I think we’ve addressed any implementation concerns,” Lapis said. “I don’t see any reason why he would veto any of the bills, other than industry opposition.”

Newsom has until Oct. 10 to sign or veto pending legislation.

A closer look

So far, the highest profile state laws to reduce plastics have been the ban on single-use plastic takeout bags at grocery stores, ratified by voters in 2016, and 2018’s legislation banning the distribution of plastic straws in full-service restaurants unless customers requested them.

Here’s a closer look at the proposals on the governor’s desk.

AB 818: Disposable wipes. This would require “Do not flush” labeling. The wipes give off microfibers that end up in the ocean after sewage treatment. On the way to sewage treatment, they collect grease that create “fatbergs,” which can clog sewage lines.

AB 881: Exporting waste. These regulations would reduce the export of mixed plastics that ultimately are not recycled. Exporters would no longer receive diversion credit for mixed plastics unless they can demonstrate that those plastics will be eventually separated and recycled.

AB 962: Reusable glass bottles. Currently, those who recycle glass by crushing it and making it available to melt into fresh glass receive a per-bottle recycling payment from the state. This would allow those who wash and reuse the bottle to receive the same payment.

AB 1201: Truth in labeling for compostables. Products and packaging must meet specifications before they can be labeled compostable.

AB 1276: Single-use foodware and packaged condiments. Dine-in customers would have to request plastic utensils, straws and condiment packs. Restaurants can asks drive-through customers if they want them.

SB 343: Truth in labeling for recyclables. Products and packaging must meet specifications before they can be labeled as recyclable and feature the chasing arrows symbol. Plastic beverage cups, lids on yogart, aerosol cans and foam coolers are among items that sometimes feature the symbol despite not being widely recyclable.

Four other measures backed by environmentalists failed to make it to the governor’s desk this session, including Allen’s single-use plastics proposal. The other three would have required microfiber filters in washing machines, phased out single-use plastic packaging for shipping online purchases, and required a minimum recycled content for single-use plastic thermoform boxes used to package fresh berries and other food products.

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