California’s New Policies on Plastics and Fossil Fuels

The state of California is the 7th ranked producer of crude oil among 50 states and one of the top plastics-industry employers in the U.S. As state, national, and global restrictions limit fossil fuel use for energy, industries dealing in petrochemicals are increasingly turning to making plastics to stay profitable. Yet, there is positive traction taking hold in California. With the state’s long history of progressive public health, social justice, and ecological legislation, we are seeing a clear pattern of commitment to addressing these important issues.

In just the last week, Los Angeles (LA) City Council passed three plastic-reduction ordinances supported by activist and frontline groups that ban distribution and sale of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam products, close state plastic bag ban loopholes within the city, and require city departments to implement zero-waste practices at city facilities and events. Additionally, San Diego also approved an ordinance banning EPS foam products. 

On a statewide level, the latest related legislation to pass includes:

  • SB 54: called the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act, many agree that SB 54 does not go nearly far enough in regulating production and use of plastic packaging and single-use plastic foodware
  • AB 1857: eliminates an incentive for waste incineration, hopefully opening a pathway to close incinerators, and establishment of a “Zero-Waste Equity Grant Program” to support zero-waste solutions in frontline communities
  • SB 1046: bans plastic “pre-checkout” bags like those used to hold loose produce and baked goods by 2025, after which point all “pre-checkout” bags must be compostable
  • SB 1013: expands California’s existing bottle-return and recycling program to include glass and polyethylene (PET) wine and spirits containers
  • AB 2638: requires all new school construction or renovation projects submitted to the state include one or more water bottle refill stations
  • SB 1137: mandates 3,200-foot setbacks from oil and gas operations across the state from places where people live, work, attend school, and recreate
  • SB 270: bans (with exceptions) most single-use plastic grocery bags

In California there are approximately 158 plastics ordinances representing 144 cities (counting San Francisco as a county not a city) and 14 counties. The total population covered by these ordinances equals roughly 18 million people (including unincorporated county numbers), which is roughly 46% of the total population of the state of California (based on rounded 2019 population statistics).

– Craig Cadwallader, Surfrider Foundation South Bay Chapter Coordinator

While this surge of legislation shows that a growing amount of attention is being paid to the serious consequences of plastic pollution relating to injustice, public health, environmental protection, and more, challenges remain. With such legislation, especially SB 54, plastic and fossil fuel industry interests conflict with the task of creating tough, enforceable regulations that successfully address the core causes of plastic pollution: continued plastics production and fossil fuel use. And it seems loopholes are frequently left open for continued plastic use, such as with SB 270, which still allows some single-use plastic bags to be distributed. Still, California is making major progress.

For the 2021–2022 California Legislative Session, the Clean Seas Lobbying Coalition was honored to continue to be at the forefront of sponsoring and supporting a suite of bills, many now signed into law, geared towards true policy solutions for reducing plastic pollution and its detriments, from extraction to disposal. We also take pride in helping to make bills better, or opposing any false solution efforts that are anything but true waste reduction or transitioning to reuse. The last two years were a great success, and we look forward to more good work to be done in 2023 and beyond.

– Genevieve Abedon, Ecoconsult, on behalf of The Clean Seas Lobbying Coalition

Los Angeles Bans New Oil and Gas Drilling

California's New Policies

On December 2, LA City Council made a historic unanimous decision to ban all new oil and gas drilling, and to stop activities related to fossil fuel extraction at all of the city’s existing well operations within the next two decades. This change comes after years of advocacy and organizing by frontline communities, who continue to call for swift government action to address growing environmental injustice and pollution caused by the intentional placement of fossil fuel extraction sites in communities of color.

The ordinance will amend racist land-use rules that have long allowed industries and governments to concentrate fossil fuel extraction activities and infrastructure in Black, Indigenous, and Latino/a/x communities. It goes further than the recently signed SB 1137, a statewide ban on placement of new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of places where people live, work, and play across California. 

Frontline groups caution that the LA ordinance stops far short of fully rectifying the many forms of racism their communities experience every day. Its timeline for phasing out wells is lengthy, and it fails to set forth a clear path for plugging and remediating decommissioned wells. Still, many say the decision is a step forward in efforts to address injustice, pollution, and the climate crisis, and sets a positive example for other municipalities.

Local Change Can Help Inspire Systemic Change

California's New Policies 2
Projection in Punta del Este, Uruguay, during INC-1 Global Plastics Treaty negotiatons. © Greenpeace / Manuela Lourenço

California’s recent actions on fossil fuels and plastics is encouraging as it has helped draw national and international attention to the toxic truths about these substances and the industries that produce them. However, the persistence of plastic’s pollution and injustice shows us only systemic solutions—not piecemeal efforts—will work. 

The same day that LA passed its new fossil fuel ordinance, negotiators in Uruguay wrapped up the first round of talks to craft a global plastics treaty addressing plastics production. How that treaty is shaped will mean the difference between immensely increased suffering or vastly reduced struggle for people and nature to survive changes caused by a warming climate on an increasingly polluted planet. 

With the global treaty, as with most other pieces of plastics and fossil fuel legislation, industry and government interests are perceived as threats to the shaping of an impartial, effective agreement that does what’s necessary to end plastic pollution and implement real solutions. The plastics and fossil fuel industries and the governments that tax and subsidize them have a lot to lose in the financial sense that industry influence can be seen in some of the legislation to emerge in California, at a disadvantage to the people and ecosystems harmed by plastics and fossil fuels.

We will continue to advocate for local, national, and federal policy change in the U.S. as well as a legally binding global plastics treaty that holds polluters accountable, supports justice and equitable solutions, identifies the connection between plastics and fossil fuels, and turns off the plastic tap. California’s escalating multifaceted efforts to address the devastation caused by plastics and fossil fuels is generally positive and encouraging, and should help inspire action on a wider scale.

– Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition

Help End Plastic Pollution!

It’s important to continue to enact legislation in the city of Los Angeles, the state of California, and globally that recognizes the insidious interconnected nature of plastics and fossil fuels, and the negative impacts they have on communities and the environment. We also need to ensure that policies focus on implementing solutions that prioritize the health and well-being of people and the environment over industry and government profits. 

It’s up to us to continue advocating for the world we want to see. Learn more about plastic pollution and take action today!

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