Despite “Fix-It” Legislation, California Plastic Reduction Laws Still Not Tough Enough

Despite “fix-it” legislation, California’s plastic reduction laws are still not tough enough, and strong laws remain difficult to pass and enforce. One troublesome trend is the introduction of bad legislation with vague language that effectively enables plastic and fossil fuel lobbyists to water down the state’s plastic reduction regulations.

Recently introduced by Senator Ben Allen (D-CA-24) in California, SB 1231 proposes to “fix” California’s “Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act” (SB 54). But in reality the rule would provide “a huge new loophole that the plastics industry and other packaging industries can drive a semi-truck of plastic pollution through,” as pointed out by experts at The Last Beach Cleanup and Beyond Plastics.

SB 1231 would allow plastic producers—instead of the state only, as originally designated—to identify and petition plastic products as “recyclable.” While touted by lawmakers, some nonprofit organizations, and the media as the nation’s “toughest” set of rules aimed at regulating plastic packaging and single-use plastic foodware to date, it’s already clear SB 54 misses the mark. But adding another loophole to legislation already full of gaps allows for continued plastic pollution and production by giving more power to the very industry the law needs to regulate.

California Policy Loopholes Enable Plastic Industry to Pollute

If SB 1231 passes, it will provide no guardrails or process for CalRecycle, the state organization tasked with enforcing SB 54, to determine whether they grant the industry’s petitions for “recyclable” status for plastic items that may not actually be recyclable. It also delays implementation of Senator Allen’s “Accurate Recycling Labels” SB 343 law which directs CalRecycle to publish data about the types of materials actually recycled in California

SB 1231 would also expand loopholes that would further delay requirements for accurate recyclability labeling, and weaken reporting of chemical additives in materials collected for recycling. These are serious mistakes, given the urgency of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts—and serious threats to public and environmental health. 

SB 54 requires that producers of single-use packaging make sure 100% of single-use packaging and plastic food service ware sold in California is recyclable or compostable by 2032. By that time, the law also stipulates that 65% of single-use plastic packaging and food service ware is recycled, along with a 25% reduction of sales of single-use plastic packaging and food service ware. But plastic was not designed to be recycled, and plastic that is collected for recycling rarely gets a second life as plastic items. Instead, plastic “recycling” is more likely to be landfilled, incinerated, or shipped to the Global South, driving pollution and injustice. Given the plastic industry’s track record for perpetuating misinformation about plastic recycling, it does not make sense to give plastic makers the responsibility of designating plastic items’ recyclability status. 

SB 54 is masked as an “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR) law, which is typically designed to hold industry accountable for the production, use, sale, and pollution of their wasteful single-use packaging. Designed as a law full of loopholes and giving a key role to the very industry it sets out to regulate, SB 54 is a law that continues to perpetuate the problem that it could help end—plastic pollution. 

SB 54 and its loopholes undermine the potential enactment of stronger reduction laws, as well as the real plastic-free reuse and refill solutions we need to stop plastic pollution at the source. Already, much evidence of the failure of California’s efforts to recycle plastic exist, including its imposition of non-recyclable plastic waste inaccurately deemed “recyclable” illegally on Mexico. This waste colonialism drives massive pollution and injustice in communities burdened with California’s trash. SB1231 is likely to make this problem worse by reducing standards on what plastic is considered “recyclable.”

It is no surprise that plastics lobbyist organizations, like the American Chemistry Council, are supporting SB 1231. This is the same plastics lobbyist organization that is suing the California State Attorney General to block the State’s subpoena in the plastic recycling fraud investigation. SB 1231 has now moved through the CA Senate to come before the California State Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.

SB 54 Needs Improvements—Not More Loopholes

Shortly after SB 54 was passed in June 2022, a committee was formed to review the law and draft the SB 54 Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act Permanent Regulations, published on March 8, 2024, and opened to a public comment period, which ended on May 8, 2024. 

At that time, many organizations, including Californians Against Waste, NRDC, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and Surfrider signed on to individual and joint comment letters that were submitted to CalRecycle. Many of the comments identified in SB 54 problematically vague definitions of “recycling” and “chemical recycling,” weak regulatory language, and emphasized the need for clearer language with more focus on non-toxic reusable, refillable, returnable solutions. Many comments also focused on how SB 54 needs to clearly establish how an expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam ban will be enforced when the target mandates are not met. 

Another major concern pointed out by these and other groups is lack of clarity about how CalRecycle will oversee the industry-led producer responsibility organization delegated by the law to implement SB 54’s extended producer responsibility requirements. Again, this strategy only gives a key position to an industry that has a poor track record of self-regulation, and is supposed to be regulated by the law.

Many organizations and businesses have shown their support to stop the latest loophole bill from passage by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. Together they point out how SB 1231:

  • Establishes a new big loophole authorizing companies to petition CalRecycle for an exception to the SB 54 recyclable characterization, and requires that CalRecycle must respond in 60 days.
  • Seeks to delay implementation of the SB 343 Truth in Labeling Law from 18 months to 24 months. This just gives producers 6 more months to mislead the public. The SB 343 legislation was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 5, 2021, with a label removal date of Fall 2024, so the producers will already have had 3 years to remove false recyclability labels. They don’t need another 6 months. In fact, many companies are already removing the false labels. 
  • As currently written, the law will not achieve the laudable goals of reducing plastic pollution, nor will it mitigate the climate and pollution impacts of single-use packaging. 

It’s clear there are many existing gaps in SB 54, and SB 1231 would only further weaken this already lackluster state legislation. By contrast, we know that the most effective types of EPR legislation hold polluters accountable by requiring specific cuts in plastic production; in addition to setting strong standards for plastic recyclability, such as removing recyclability labels from impossible-to-recycle plastic items and increasing recycled content; and eliminating toxic substances in products. 

Legislators and the plastics/products industry lobbyists are using SB 54 as a preemption law that could stop any other bill or even enforcement of existing laws on plastics, according to Jan Dell, engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup. Read here how the plastic recycling industry is trying to use SB54 as a way to stop the new bag law. The confusion continues on the local level all the way up to the state level, with city council members delaying enacting or even passing ordinances, believing that SB54 will take care of California’s plastic pollution problem.

Take Action

Recycling plastic is not the primary solution to plastic pollution. Instead, we need a reduction in plastic production, and establishment of reuse, refill, repair, share, and regenerative systems that end wastefulness at the source. What’s more, we need regulators to regulate polluters, and not allow polluters to regulate themselves. 

If you are an Environmental NGO or a CA Business and want to support the letter in Opposition of SB1231, please sign here.

We must convince government leaders to take a strong stance on effective legislation to end plastic pollution. Show your support for the U.S. Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2023, which expands and improves upon earlier versions of the bill by tapping into proven solutions that will better protect impacted communities, reform our broken recycling system, and shift the financial burden of waste management off of municipalities and taxpayers to where it belongs: the producers of plastic pollution.

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