Clock ticking for contentious California EPR bill to avert plastics ballot measure

Supporters of SB 54, a bill to create an extended producer responsibility program in California for plastic as well as printed paper and packaging, are racing the clock to pass the bill. Their goal: to convince the backers of a competing ballot measure to withdraw their proposal by a June 29 deadline. 

Those that back SB 54, including lawmakers, recycling industry representatives and major waste companies including Republic Services, say the bill is the most comprehensive and stakeholder-friendly initiative that can hold producers responsible for plastic pollution. They also argue it offers stronger franchise protections for haulers and MRFs, which historically have been wary of previous versions of the bill for giving too much control to producers. State Sen. Ben Allen sponsors the bill.

SB 54 already has years of intense scrutiny and baggage attached to it: Previous iterations were tabled or failed to pass in 2019, 2020 and 2021 due to fights between competing interests. The 2019 and 2020 versions of the bill garnered support from both Republic and Recology, while WM opposed the measure in prior years.

This year, SB 54 is facing extra competition from a ballot measure known as the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, which has some similar goals but a different approach to improving recycling and reducing plastic pollution. The ballot measure would require single-use plastic packaging and foodware to be recyclable, refillable, compostable or reusable by 2030. It would also call for reducing single-use plastic packaging and foodware sold into the state by 25% by 2030. It would ban polystyrene food packaging and require plastic producers and distributors to pay a 1-cent fee per item, with the money going toward waste and recycling efforts such as infrastructure or pollution abatement.

Supporters of the ballot measure include the Nature Conservancy and other environmental organizations, who say their initiative is more straightforward, sets earlier timelines for source reduction and directly bans polystyrene. In contrast, SB 54 sets a required 20% recycling rate for expanded polystyrene containers by 2025, which bill supporters view as a phase-out of the resin because they see the threshold as unattainable. 

To remove this measure from the ballot, SB 54 would need to pass the Assembly and the Senate by June 29. That’s because the petitioners of the ballot initiative would need to agree to rescind the measure 130 days before the election, which is set for Nov. 8. This deadline is specific to the bill, as California’s legislative session does not end until August. Sen. Allen’s staff did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

SB 54 backers expect the bill to be considered Monday in the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, where it must successfully pass through in order to survive. Other legislative delays, such as prolonged debates or numerous amendments, could also slow down the process and threaten its extremely tight deadline, said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council and a supporter of the bill. “The bill is so complex, and people haven’t had a lot of time to get their arms around it,” Sanborn said. 

If passed, SB 54 could be the most sweeping EPR law in the country. Given the state’s influence on national recycling and packaging policy, it could have ripple effects in the industry, Sanborn added. 

What’s in this year’s bill? 

This year’s version of SB 54 would create an extended producer responsibility program for printed paper and plastic packaging. A producer responsibility organization would be responsible for collection and recycling with oversight from the state.  

The bill requires a 25% reduction in single-use plastic packaging and foodservice products by 2032 and calls for a 65% recycling rate by the same year. At least 10% of the source-reduction efforts would need to be achieved through eliminating single-use plastic, with 4% specifically though reuse or refill systems. The program would include eco-modulated fees, meaning producers could pay a penalty for using hard-to-recycle or hazardous materials in their packaging or get a credit for using more sustainable, right-sized or reusable packaging. 

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