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.

Every year on June 8, people across the globe come together to honor our oceans and all that they do to keep us alive. If you’re looking for ways to celebrate the seas, here are 5 ways to love the ocean on World Oceans Day, even if you don’t happen to be near a coastline.

1. Watch: Webinars About the Ocean

Find knowledge and inspiration about our oceans from a few amazing panels of experts in a few of our favorite Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) webinars. PPC’s Global Webinar Series brings together our community of experts to share the latest information, tips, and resources to stop the growing plastic pollution crisis.

In our June 2023 webinar, Plastic-Free Seas: Diving Into How Plastic Impacts Health, Climate, and Our Oceans, we discussed the challenges that plastic pollution poses to our oceans and our bodies, how polluted waters disrupt the mental health benefits we gain from access to healthy oceans and waterways, and how we may restore our planet as well as our own physical and mental well-being.

During Deep Ocean to Outer Space: Plastic Pollution Solutions, in December 2020, we discussed the impacts of and potential solutions to plastic pollution in the ocean, as well as in outer space.

2. Read: Blogs About the Ocean

Surfers are some of the biggest advocates for our oceans, and were among the first people to call attention to the global plastic pollution crisis. Learn more about a dedicated subculture of wave riders who have turned to activism to protect the beaches and waters they love from plastic pollution in our blog Celebrating the Surfers Turning the Tide on Plastic Pollution.

For people in the Northern Hemisphere, June means summertime: the perfect time of year to enjoy the beach or recreate in the oceans. It’s also the perfect time to rethink your beauty routine and make better choices to benefit our oceans, environment, and your health. Check out 10 Tips for a Summer Beauty Routine that is Healthier for Our Oceans.

3. Read or Listen: Books About the Ocean

Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans by Captain Charles Moore with Cassandra Phillips 

Read the story of Captain Charles Moore’s encounter with the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (The North Pacific Gyre) in 1997, and his return in 1999 to collect samples of microplastics for analysis on his custom built research vessel, ORV Alguita. The results of his first study in 1999 were shocking: plastic pollution caught in his research nets outweighed zooplankton, tiny animals that make up the base of the ocean’s food web, by a factor of six to one. As one of the main drivers of plastic pollution awareness, Captain Moore and Plastic Ocean remind us that an ocean free of plastic pollution is of utmost importance to the survival of all species. Learn more.

Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution by Marcus Eriksen

In 2008, two sailors drifted across the North Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii on a raft made from 15,000 plastic bottles tied in old fishing nets stuffed under a Cessna 310 Aircraft.  They called the vessel “JUNK.” The purpose of their 88-day, 2600-mile voyage was to build awareness and help build a movement to save our seas from plastic pollution. Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of 5 Gyres, who was one of those two sailors, tells the story. He shows us that there’s a great divide between how industry sees the future and what the movement demands.  This book is not only a story of adventure, but a vision of how we bridge that divide. Learn more.

Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis By Erica Cirino

Much of what you’ve heard about plastic pollution may be wrong. Instead of a great island of trash, the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of manmade debris spread over hundreds of miles of sea—more like a soup than a floating garbage dump. Recycling is more complicated than we were taught: less than nine percent of the plastic we create is recycled, and the majority ends up in the ocean. Erica Cirino, now Communications Manager at PPC, brings readers on a globe-hopping journey to meet the scientists and activists telling the real story of the plastic crisis. Learn more.

4. View: Ocean Art

Meredith Andrews, contemporary portrait, travel and lifestyle photographer based on the sub-tropical island of Bermuda finds much of her inspiration combing the region’s beaches for plastic pollution, which she artfully arranges and photographs. Learn more.

Jo Atherton is an artist who works with objects, including plastic pollution, gathered on the UK coastline. Her practice highlights the diversity of plastic washed ashore and how the ubiquity of this material characterizes our current geological age of human influence—the Anthropocene. Learn more.

Pamela Longobardi, an American artist and activist fascinated by the metamorphoses of the ocean in the age of plastic. Through her works, she launches warning messages to the viewer, thrown like (plastic) bottles into the sea. Learn more.

Susan Middleton is an artist, photographer, author, and educator specializing in the portraiture of rare and endangered animals, plants, sites, and cultures. Much of her inspiration comes from the oceans. Learn more.

Alexis Rockman is an artist known for his paintings that depict future seascapes and landscapes as they might exist with impacts of climate change, pollution, and other human-made problems. In particular, his Oceanus and Shipwrecks series illustrate the beauty of the oceans—and what could happen if we do not protect them. Learn more.

Judith Selby and Richard Lang are artists who have spent more than 25 years visiting 1000 yards of Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore to gather plastic debris washing out of the Pacific Ocean. By carefully collecting and “curating” the bits of plastic, Selby and Lang fashion it into works of art— art that matter-of-factly shows, with minimal artifice, the material as it is. Learn more.

5. Experience: The Blue Mind Challenge

The 11th Annual 100 Days of Blue Mind Challenge takes place May 26–Sept 2, 2024. Nominated for The Earthshot Prize in 2023, Blue Mind refers to a water-induced state of calm, unity, and inspired will to protect and restore nature. Researched and described by PPC Scientific Advisor Dr. Wallace J Nichols, this positive, holistic, values-based solution simultaneously addresses human well-being in a time of despair, and environmental protection in a time of destruction. The 100 Days of Blue Mind Challenge is simple: get near, in, on or under water daily. If you miss a day, don’t worry! Invite someone who needs it to join you from time to time. Share your stories in any way you like. If you’re on social media, use the #bluemind hashtag so fellow water-lovers can easily follow along. Here’s a list of 100+ ways to practice Blue Mind.

Take Action

We are all connected to the ocean, whether we live nearby or far away. It’s no secret that one of the biggest threats to our oceans is plastic pollution—which of course is not just an ocean issue, but a whole Earth issue. 

Please consider supporting our work to educate, connect, and advocate for a more just, regenerative world free of plastic pollution.

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July 24 , 7:00 pm 8:00 pm EDT

Join Beyond Plastics and award-winning investigative journalist, Sharon Lerner for a free webinar delving into Lerner’s recent expose of 3M’s decades-long cover-up of the “forever chemical” PFOS/PFAS. Lerner’s article, published in both ProPublica and the New Yorker, details the experience of a 3M scientist who discovered PFOS in the blood of the general public and then learned that the company had buried evidence that the chemical was in everyone’s bodies decades earlier.

What is PFOS? How did it get to be present in almost every human’s blood, including newborn babies? What are its impacts on our health and environment? How does this “forever chemical” relate to plastics? And what can you do to protect yourself and prevent future health impacts and environmental harms?

Join us at 7:00 PM ET US on Wednesday, July 24 to hear directly from Lerner and learn more.

June 10 , 4:00 pm 5:00 pm EDT

Join PEER, Beyond Plastics, and Oceana to uncover the global threats posed by plastic pollution and its health hazards. Explore regulatory solutions crucial in combating plastic use and learn about the National Park Service’s efforts to curb plastic waste. Discover how urgent action is needed and be inspired to make informed choices, reduce personal plastic consumption, and become advocates for a cleaner environment. Empower yourself with practical tips to reduce personal plastic consumption and become a catalyst for change in the fight against plastics. Join us and be part of the solution! This webinar is presented in collaboration with Beyond Plastics and Oceana.

July 18 , 5:00 pm 6:00 pm EDT

The urgency of our plastic pollution crisis requires a substantial shift in the way products are designed, manufactured, used, and recirculated. From textiles and food containers to sachets and protective shipping packaging, plastic continues to dominate across industries and persist, polluting people and the planet at every stage of its existence. As we create a more circular economy, what exciting bio-based feedstocks and technologies are emerging to help transition away from fossil-based inputs? Can nature-based solutions both be regenerative and scalable

Designers are key to this transition, acting as the bridge between material innovators on the supply side to real-world applications being brought to life in the market. Join us as we sit down for a conversation with two leading regenerative material suppliers and a holistic design studio that is asking: How do we do “the most good” instead of “less bad” to reorient industrial design to replenish natural systems? We’ll explore the landscape of plastic alternatives, dive into two ocean-based feedstocks, and learn how these materials are being employed for a healthier future. Our panelists include: Hoa Doan, Head of Impact and Sustainability, NotplaRenata Massion, Senior Sustainability Manager, Cruz Foam; and Baillie Mishler, Co-Founder and Design Director, PROWL Studio. The conversation will be moderated by Aidan Maguire, Coalition Program Manager for Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Date: Thurs., July 18
Time: 2-3 pm PT | 5-6 pm ET
Click here to convert to your timezone.


Panelists

Hoa Doan

Hoa Doan (she/her) is a climate policy expert with experience in consulting, public sectors, and entrepreneurship. She was a Net Zero policy advisor in the UK Prime Minister’s Office at No10 Downing Street, overseeing the delivery of decarbonisation programs across the building and transport sectors. Hoa was shortlisted for the 2023 Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe list in the Social Impact category for her contribution to the UK climate policy agenda. She is currently the Head of Impact and Sustainability at Notpla, a UK startup that recently won The Earthshot Prize for its plastic-free consumer packaging products made from seaweed and plants.



Renata Massion

Renata Massion (she/her) is an environmental enthusiast and the Senior Sustainability Manager at Cruz Foam, where she supports the development of cutting-edge packaging foam that embodies a new frontier in sustainable materials. Renata spearheads Cruz Foam’s initiatives in responsible sourcing, life cycle assessment, and environmentally conscious disposal strategies. With a Bachelor’s degree in International Development and Political Economy and a Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management, she combines her deep understanding of global dynamics with technical expertise to drive positive environmental change and empower a universal drive for sustainable progress.


Baillie Mishler

Baillie Mishler (she/her) is the Co-Founder and Design Director of PROWL Studio, an industrial design and research studio creating new solutions for people and the planet by employing materials, processes, and technology more responsibly. Her design roles at industry-leading companies such as Steelcase and Coalesse have instilled in her strong skills and detailed attention in industrial design, furniture production, color-material-finish development and specification, brand communications, and interior design. 


Moderator

Aidan Maguire

Aidan Maguire (he/him) is the Coalition Program Manager for Plastic Pollution Coalition. Guided by systems, he believes in the power of cross-sector collaboration to address our global plastic pollution crisis. Aidan brings over 5 years of experience in business management, which recently has included consulting projects and reporting focused on scaling innovative alternatives to plastics. Aidan is driven to protect our natural world by eliminating plastic dependency in business and beyond. When not working on this issue, he is most likely trekking through the Northern California wilderness, playing soccer with friends, or making refillable candles.


Resources

June 13 , 12:00 pm 1:30 pm EDT

Join the Environmental Law Institute and the Pro Bono Clearinghouse for the tenth part of our continuing legal education series: Community Lawyering for Environmental Justice. ELI’s Clearinghouse strives to ensure that communities with viable environmental matters get the representation they need, whether in a courtroom, before an agency, or in a more facilitative or consultative fashion. The Clearinghouse connects communities and individuals seeking representation with Clearinghouse members and collaborating organizations.

This installment will focus on the environmental justice implications of “forever chemicals,” including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Our expert panel will highlight developments, challenges, and opportunities in this burgeoning area, discussing research on the disproportionate exposure experienced by communities of color, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory actions, and ongoing advocacy efforts. It will include discussion of the new final PFAS safe drinking water standards and designation of perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid as hazardous substances under CERCLA. The panel is intended to equip attorneys and community advocates with the necessary tools to ensure their communities are not left behind in mitigation efforts.

Panelists:
Jack Schnettler, Public Interest Environmental Law Fellow, Environmental Law Institute, Moderator
Scott Faber, Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, Environmental Working Group
Rashmi Joglekar, PhD, Associate Director of Science, Policy & Engagement, Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, University of California San Francisco
Jahred Liddie, PhD Student, Population Health Sciences, Environmental Health Department, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Erik D. Olson, Senior Strategic Director for Health, Environmental Health, NRDC