Every day we throw away millions of pieces of single-use plastic. California environmental groups are pressing for a bill or ballot initiative to limit their production.

Every day we throw away millions of pieces of single-use plastic. California environmental groups are pressing for a bill or ballot initiative to limit their production.

Every day we throw away millions of pieces of single-use plastic. California environmental groups are pressing for a bill or ballot initiative to limit their production.

Most California environmentalists want limits on the manufacture plastics. But negotiations on a bill in the legislature has unveiled a divide between groups willing to compromise and those who aren’t.

SB-54 would require California producers to cut down on single-use plastic packaging and foodware by 25% over the next decade. It would also charge producers and plastic resin manufacturers $500 million annually, money which would go toward conservation efforts.

Proponents led by Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), say that if passed, SB-54 would be the nation’s most comprehensive legislation of its kind. The measure attracted new attention last week after Allen introduced amendments, and a host of environmental organizations released statements in support.

The catch? Passing SB-54 would most likely require an important concession from environmentalists — dropping the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, a November ballot initiative which is similar to the bill but more ambitious. Some environmental groups prefer the more progressive ballot proposition. Meanwhile, supporters of SB-54 are waiting to see if it passes before the legislative recess starts in July. The bill is due for a hearing on Monday, according to Allen, although he’s still working out some details with Assembly leadership.

“We’re getting very close to getting everything finalized,” Allen said Wednesday evening. “There are a lot of moving parts, lots of different interests… at the end of the day, we’re closing in on a deal that is going to put California at the front of the line when it comes to groundbreaking recycling and source reduction targets.”

Jay Ziegler, director of policy and external affairs for The Nature Conservancy in California, which supports SB-54, said he was “optimistic” about environmentalists finding consensus.

On Tuesday, Ziegler met with Assemblywoman Luz Rivas, chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, and other environmental, business and government groups to sort out differences. Among the sticking points are concerns about whether the 25% reduction is enforceable and whether the bill should include a complete ban on polystyrene.

Ziegler said the group is still working on resolving those remaining issues. But the bill doesn’t have much time; June 30 is the last day for the legislature to pass a bill before summer recess.

Environmentalist face another deadline, too: June 29 is the last day that signatories of a ballot initiative can abandon it. According to Ziegler, the initiative would “likely” need to be pulled for the bill to move forward.

In California, every signatory of a ballot question needs to agree before it is dropped. But one of the plastics measure’s signatories is Linda Escalante, Southern California Legislative Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is one of three organizations that signed onto a scathing letter last week in opposition to SB-54. Escalante said Thursday morning that with the bill as written, she wouldn’t be willing to drop the initiative.

“As the bill stands, we would not be willing to drop the initiative, but we continue to communicate with the author and stakeholders about our lingering concerns with the language in print,” she said.

Too much compromise?

SB-54 is now three years old. Its current version differs from the ballot initiative in several ways. The initiative calls for the reduction target to be met two years earlier than the bill and includes a full ban on polystyrene, which SB-54 does not. The bill also leaves more power to producers to regulate their reduction.

This third difference is a main dividing point among environmentalists. In their letter, representatives of NRDC, Californians Against Waste and the Sierra Club California wrote that during the lengthy negotiations, SB-54 has turned into a “compromise” bill that allows producers too much control over how single-use products will be reduced.

“As the negotiations over the bill have progressed over the last three years, SB 54 has become increasingly dependent on a manufacturer-run model that would put the producers in charge of running the system,” the group wrote.

“Manufacturer-run stewardship organizations are a tool that could, with sufficient safeguards and complementary strategies, be a useful strategy, but they can not be the entirety of a comprehensive plastic pollution policy.”

According to Anja Brandon, U.S. Plastics Policy Analyst for the Ocean Conservancy, the group advocating for SB-54 has “pushed as hard as we can.”

“Several groups don’t think this bill goes far enough on a few key issues,” Brandon said. “We have worked with other stakeholders for months to push for the strongest possible provisions on those issues to accomplish the strongest possible plastic legislation in the country.”

Nick Lapis, Director of Advocacy at Californians Against Waste, acknowledged that Allen may have been limited by what he thought he could include and still receive a two-thirds vote in the legislature. Still, Lapis said that recycling programs in California that are run by manufacturers give industry the chance to “game the system.”

“We definitely did not take this position lightly,” Lapis said. “We’ve been huge supporters of 54 in the past… But given our experience with other programs, this just seemed fatally flawed.”

Allen, Lapis said, is in “a hard place.” He must craft a bill progressive enough that environmentalists would be willing to drop the ballot measure, but restrained enough that it has a chance of passing. The Senator said the bill contains “strong enforceability and accountability” mechanisms, and pointed to the fact that it gives businesses a role in monitoring recycling goals as a positive.

The bill will first head to the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. Brandon said she thinks the legislature is aware that Californians support plastic regulations.

“This certainly needs to move quickly,” she said. “The legislature knows that Californians want action on this. Six-in-ten California voters support policies to reduce plastic pollution, and the legislation knows that this is their chance to deliver on that. I think that is what’s driving this moment.”

This story was originally published June 23, 2022 12:35 PM.

Owen Tucker-Smith is a summer reporting intern in The Sacramento Bee’s Capitol Bureau. He is a junior at Yale University, where he studies statistics and is managing editor of the Yale Daily News.

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