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Updated: California bill aims for major reduction of plastic packaging, extended producer responsibility

If passed, California SB 54 will enact a 25 percent reduction in plastic packaging and foodware by weight and item count by 2032.

June 29, 2022

The California legislature has made public the updated text of SB 54, or the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act, introduced by state Sen. Ben Allen. The landmark legislation calls for a 25 percent reduction in plastic packaging and foodware by weight and item count by 2032. It mandates that nearly half of the reduction result from the direct elimination of plastic packaging or switching to reuse and refill systems rather than replacing it with alternative single-use materials. A press release from the Ocean Conservancy says the bill paves the way for a growing reuse and refillables market to cut single-use plastics altogether.

“Without a doubt this bill, if passed, would be the strongest plastics legislation we have ever seen here in the United States,” says Anja Brandon, Ph.D., U.S. plastics policy analyst at Ocean Conservancy and a principal contributor to the bill text.

“It mandates a reduction in the amount of single-use plastics sold in California, full stop. My fellow Ocean Conservancy scientists and I have crunched the numbers and this provision alone would directly eliminate nearly 23 million tons of single-use plastic packaging and foodware over the next 10 years. To put that in context, that amounts to nearly 26 times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is in addition to mandating tried and true policy measures like extended producer responsibility that holds plastics makers financially responsible for the full lifecycle of their products.”

Brandon tells Recycling Today the mandate would require producers to create a plan that contains an evaluation of their materials and production and data on weight and number of plastic items. This plan would be sent to a producer responsibility organization, which would ensure that all individual plans add up to the 25 percent mandate over the next 10 years. Of the 25 percent source reduction, 10 percent must be accomplished by eliminating plastic packaging without replacing it with another material or through reuse and refill systems, Brandon says. The bill, she says, also would jump-start investments in the state’s reuse economy.

The legislation would require that all single-use packaging and foodware, including nonplastic items, be recyclable or compostable within the state of California by 2032 and mandates a 65 percent recycling rate target.

“And as importantly,” Brandon says, “the legislation provides hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to support communities and restore ecosystems most impacted by plastic pollution. Especially given that the United States is the No. 1 generator of plastic waste globally, this is a huge win for our ocean and all the communities who love and depend on it and will have impacts here in California and around the world.”

Sixty percent of this fund paid for by plastic producers and resin makers would go to address current and historic harms to disadvantaged low-income and rural communities, Brandon says.

Scientists estimate that some 11 million metric tons of plastics enter the ocean every year. Data from 35 years of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coast Cleanup show that the most common items littering beaches and waterways are single-use plastic packaging and foodware.

“Targeting single-use plastic packaging and foodware has to be central to any strategy tackling plastic pollution because it is these items that are most likely to end up polluting our beaches and ocean,” says Nicholas Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “This bill boils down to fewer plastics on shelves, and less plastic pollution in our ocean. As the country’s biggest state economy, California has the potential to lead the United States out of its plastic pollution crisis.”

Ocean Conservancy has expressed support for this bill and another ballot measure, the California Plastic Waste Reduction Regulations Initiative, which also addresses plastic pollution and reduction. 

“Our priority is fewer plastics on shelves and less plastic in our ocean, and both the ballot measure and SB 54 can get us there,” says Jeff Watters, vice president of external affairs at Ocean Conservancy, Washington. “If the legislature fails to act on this landmark opportunity with SB 54, we will do everything we can to pass the ballot measure. This is the year California will lead on this issue.”

Brandon says the model of extended producer responsibility and source reduction found in SB 54 would set a new baseline for policies moving forward. The bill would be the first source-reduction mandate in the country and the first mandate for reuse and refill systems and elimination of materials.

Commenting on SB 54 in a news release, Joshua Baca, vice president of Plastics at the Washington-based American Chemistry Council, says, "As an industry, we are concerned with several elements of SB 54 that require further clarification and specificity to improve its implementation. Specifically, the definition of recycling needs to be improved and made clearer so new, innovative technologies that keep hard-to-recycle plastic out of the environment and landfills count in achieving the circularity goals in the legislation. Without new, innovative recycling technologies, it will not be possible to meet the demand for recycled plastic in food-grade application. Also, last-minute carve-outs for certain materials could ultimately jeopardize an effective recycling system that is supported by all the materials going through it. And finally, as global brands and industries commit to using more recycled material in their products, the legislation places an 8 percent cap on post-consumer recycled content to meet the requirements in the legislation. We believe future legislation or regulations should incentivize the use of more post-consumer recycled content in plastic packaging and take into consideration the climate impact of switching to materials with a higher carbon footprint."

Baca adds, "Nevertheless, we will work constructively with lawmakers and CalRecycle to support appropriate implementation of SB 54, and we will support subsequent legislation to make the necessary improvements to help ensure the intent of SB 54 is carried out effectively."

Recycling Today has reached out to the Plastics Industry Association and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries for further comment.

*This article was updated June 30 to add comments from the American Chemistry Council.