Push to reduce plastic waste gains traction in Sacramento and D.C. – Orange County Register

If the mountain of proposed legislation is any indication, lawmakers are increasingly primed to crack down on the plastic waste that is littering roadsides, washing onto beaches and into oceans, being digested by fish, and ending up in our own bellies.

In Sacramento, at least a dozen bills go after plastic pollution from a variety of angles, including reducing the amount of single-use plastics and refilling returnable beverage bottles. And in Washington, D.,C., a sweeping federal proposal co-authored by Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would place much of the responsibility for plastic reduction and recycling on companies that make and utilize single-use plastics.

But there are obstacles, particularly opposition from business interests and a lack of consensus among lawmakers.

“In the past few years, we’ve had a breakthrough in terms of public awareness, but I don’t think we quite have the political will yet,” said UCLA’s Daniel Coffee, a public policy researcher whose specialties include plastic pollution.

Coffee compared the magnitude of the Lowenthal bill — the “Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act” — to the landmark Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, but said it went beyond what Congress was likely to approve this year. Some of the state proposals, which are more incremental, are considered more likely to become law.

“It is no longer a question of if California will do something, but when and how it will happen,” said Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, a statehouse leader on the issue who’s resubmitted a key plastic-pollution reduction proposal after failing to get it approved each of the past two years.

While solutions are a source of dispute, there’s little denying the extent of the problem.

Some 15 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean globally each year and the amount is on pace to triple by 2040, according to the United Nations. The U.S. leads the world in plastic waste, producing 42 million metric tons in 2016 — five times what it produced just six years earlier — according to the journal Science Advances.

Increasingly, that waste is ending up in landfills — and in the ocean — as overseas markets for recyclables have dried up. Less than 15% of California’s single-use plastics (and just 8% nationwide) are now recycled, while environmentalists clamor for stricter laws and polls show widespread public concern.

California has taken several high-profile but modest steps toward addressing the waste. In 2016, voters ratified a ban on single-use plastic take-out bags, and two years later the Legislature approved restrictions on single-use plastic straws. Last year, California became the first state to pass a law that requires plastic bottles be made with at least 15% recycled content, a standard that will be increased to 50% by 2030.

Additionally, a handful of coastal cities — including Long Beach and Santa Monica — have approved restrictions on single-use plastic utensils and containers.

But environmentalists say those measures merely scratch the surface of the problem.

“Californians, decision-makers and companies all know we can and should do better,” said Ashley Blacow of the environmental group Oceana. “We know this is possible because we are seeing other countries take meaningful action, and alternative business practices and products are available here at home.”

Industry pushback

The federal bill, introduced by Lowenthal and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR, would phase out many of the most littered single-use plastics, including carryout bags, foam food and beverage containers, plastic stirrers and plastic utensils. And it would require a minimum recycled content nationwide for plastic beverage containers.

Among numerous other provisions, it would also require producers of packaging, containers and food service products to “design, manage and finance programs to collect and process product waste,” according to a bill summary.

“The European Union has been ahead of us in addressing the problem, but this would go beyond anything they’ve done,” Coffee said.

Within days of the bill’s March 25 introduction, the Plastics Industry Association issued a scathing attack on the proposal.

“This bill is a direct threat to the nearly one million men and women who work in the domestic plastics industry,” said trade group President Tony Radoszewski in a press release. “Additionally, this misguided legislation could have the unintended consequence of leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Similar to President Biden’s response to critics of his green-energy initiatives, Lowenthal responded that the bill would simply shift jobs and dollars to more environment-friendly industries.

“Despite the claims of the plastic industry, our bill will create jobs through massive investments in infrastructure, incentivize more sustainable products entering the market, and create an actual domestic marketplace for recycled material,” Lowenthal said.

Coffee acknowledged that single-use replacement products for plastics involve the creation of greenhouse gases, as does any manufactured product. He said the ideal solution is reusable substitutes, such as the reusable grocery bags already in widespread use. Some consumers also carry their own food utensils and Berkeley recently ran a pilot program in restaurants and cafes that employed loans of reusable cups.

But a significant part of the problem is unnecessary packaging that could simply be eliminated, according to Claudia Deeg of the CALPIRG advocacy group.

“We don’t need to wrap every online order in layers of plastic packaging,” she said.

Environmentalists also complain about the disproportionate lobbying muscle of the plastics industry, a factor Coffee noted as well.

“The plastics industry — and the fossil fuel industry, of which it’s a part — isn’t shy about pouring its money into influencing policymakers,” he said.

Lowenthal, meanwhile, acknowledged that if his proposal was not approved in its entirety, portions could make it into law; “if not all in the same bill, then at least through other legislative actions.”

California’s lead

With the future of federal legislation murky, advocates for plastic reduction want to continue building momentum in California.

Perhaps the biggest prize now on the docket is Allen’s SB 54, versions of which have been approved in both the Senate and Assembly over the past two years but have never  made it out of the Legislature’s bureaucratic gauntlet to the governor’s desk.

The bill would reduce waste by cutting back on the use of plastics and by boosting recycling and compostables. The current version, stripped down from last year’s proposal, would prohibit makers of single-use plastic packaging and single-use food-service products from selling, distributing or importing those products unless they are recyclable or compostable.

While the Lowenthal bill and the flurry of other proposed state legislation signal growing concern about the issue, Coffee points to SB 54 as a potential watermark.

“If SB 54 passes, it could be that moment,” Coffee said. “Then other states could see what’s possible and follow suit, and it might help something nationwide too. California is often the leader in this type of legislation.”

Allen managed last year to appease the American Beverage Association sufficiently so that the trade group didn’t oppose his bill — although the trade group didn’t support it either. The state Chamber of Commerce opposed that version, although most of the sources of their objections are not currently in the version proposed this year. Those deleted provisions including a maximum fine of $50,000 per day for violators and giving the state’s recycling authority broad authority to design a program that eventually would cut single-use waste by 75%.

“We are working with industry to address their concerns even as we keep our eyes on the prize,” Allen said Wednesday, March 31. “This is not about doing away with products and packaging. It’s about pushing producers to use more sustainable materials and reduce unnecessary and costly waste.”

Meanwhile, CALPIRG’s Deeg emphasized the importance of continued progress on the state and local levels in accelerating change nationwide.

“The more successful policies we can point to, the better our chance of a comprehensive overhaul,” she said.

Bill roundup

SB 54, which would require single-use plastics to be recyclable or compostable, has gotten the most attention of plastic waste bills before the California Legislature this year. But there are at least 11 other plastic-waste proposals before lawmakers. Among them:

  • AB 1371 would phase out the use of single-use plastic packaging used in shipping online purchases in the state, including shipping envelopes, bubble wrap, air pillows, packing peanuts, foam and other shipment packaging that contains plastic.
  • AB 1276 would take the requirement that customers can get single-use plastics straws in sit-down restaurants only upon request and expand it to include other single-use food accessories.
  • AB 622 would require washing machines sold in California include a microfiber filter beginning in 2024.
  • AB 962 would establish a program to refill and reuse returnable beverage bottles.
  • AB 478 would require a minimum recycled content for single-use plastic thermoform boxes that are used to package fresh berries and other food products.
  • SB 343 and AB 1201 would crack down on the use of the words “recyclable” and “compostable,” as well as the recyclable symbol, on products and package that does not meet those definitions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *