How the recycling symbol lost its meaning

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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Plastic “recycling” is a false solution to plastic pollution. How do we know this? Since the 1970s, businesses making and selling plastic, governments, and some organizations have overwhelmingly told the public that it is essential to recycle plastic. Recycling messages have been communicated to us across all types of media and in many different ways: in advertising campaigns, imprinted recycling symbols on plastic products, and much more. Yet, despite this major push for recycling plastic, plastic pollution and its toxic impacts continue to grow. There is plenty of evidence that plastic recycling is not only failing to live up to its promises, it is also making plastic pollution worse. In contrast, by focusing on plastic-free reuse, we can tap into a solution that ends wastefulness at the source.

Recycled Plastics Are Toxic

How can an activity we’ve been told is right actually be wrong? Turns out, plastics were never designed to be recycled. “The future of plastic is in the trash can,” one packaging industry executive said at a plastic industry meeting in 1956—not in the recycling bin. In other words, plastic was designed to be wasted, despite the heavy toll that its full existence—from the extraction of fossil fuels to plastic’s eventual disposal in landfills, incinerators, or the environment—has on people and the planet.

Plastics are Not “Circular”

Today, the plastic and fossil fuel industries continue to perpetuate the myth that plastics are recyclable by promoting the idea of “plastics circularity”—that plastics can somehow be reused endlessly without creating harmful costs. But this idea is false: Plastic recycling as it is today is harmful and cannot be considered “circular,” because plastic recycling processes continue to drive plastic pollution and its dangerous and toxic impacts—including the climate crisis, environmental injustice, chemical pollution, and more. And while we may need to engage in some kinds of recycling of the less toxic plastics we already have in order to mitigate plastic pollution, recycling on its own cannot be seen as the sole solution to plastic pollution. Instead, recycling must be coupled with a drastic reduction in plastic production in order to be more helpful than harmful. 

“Recycled” Plastics are Actually Downcycled

Additionally, even when plastics are recycled, they are most often “downcycled,” or made into items of lesser value and quality (like turning plastic water bottles into plastic fleece jackets or carpet fiber), and continue to cause considerable pollution. When collected for traditional “mechanical” recycling, plastics must be sorted by color and type, washed, and shredded up. These processes burn large amounts of fossil fuel energy–emitting chemicals and greenhouse gases, waste and contaminate water, and create microplastics and nanoplastics. The small plastic particles are then melted down, and manufacturers must mix in a large amount of newly made (virgin) plastic and/or toxic additives to restore some of its useful properties. Recycling increases the toxicity of plastic; there are hundreds of additional toxic chemicals, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals, in recycled plastic. And that’s in addition to the mix of more than 16,000 chemicals in newly made plastic.

“Recycled” Plastic is Not Suitable for Food and Beverage Packaging

The toxicity of plastic and recycled plastic presents serious dangers to the environment and public health, and drives environmental injustices. Research has indicated that recycled plastic is not suitable for many uses, particularly when it comes to packaging of food and beverages, as it contains a wide range of dangerous chemicals. Drink bottles made of recycled plastic are even more contaminated than drink bottles made of virgin (new) plastic, and these chemicals easily leach into the beverages they contain. 

Plastics Create Environmental Injustice

Today, most plastic that is discarded as “waste” is never recycled. The global waste industry is more likely to landfill, incinerate, or ship plastic—often to the Global South—where plastic is dumped and sometimes open-burned, driving pollution and injustice as waste colonialism. Meanwhile, these industries only continue to increase plastic production, worsening plastic pollution.

Communities near plastic recycling sorting centers, often called materials recovery facilities (MRFs), and recycling plants are often the most underserved, and face increased risks to their health. People who find employment by picking through plastic pollution as part of the informal waste sector, who often live in the Global South, face serious health hazards and poor working conditions. Plastic recycling infrastructure and activities can cause polluted air, soil, and drinking water; bring constant truck, train, or barge traffic as well as scavenger animals who are attracted to eating waste; and there are often fires or intake of radioactive and other hazardous materials.

Yet Industries Want to Make More Plastic

As a result of the increasing awareness around plastic recycling’s failure, the plastic and fossil fuel industries—as well as consumer brands using huge amounts of plastic in their products—now face significant backlash. Corporate giants churning out plastic pollution, which decades ago answered the public outcry over plastic pollution with plastic recycling and anti-litter campaigns, are working to counter society’s growing consciousness. 

People are beginning to realize there is simply too much plastic on the planet. More than 10 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced globally to date, and plastic production has increased by more than 18,300 percent in the last 65 years alone. About 460 million metric tons of plastic are now produced annually, and without action, this number is expected to triple by the year 2050. Yet, less than 9% of all plastic ever made has been “recycled.” Recycling rates for other materials, which are fully recyclable, such as aluminum, glass, and paper, are far higher. (Though, for all materials, reuse should be prioritized over single-use, reducing the need for recycling altogether.)

Despite the world’s need for far less plastic, the plastic and fossil fuel industries only want to create more of it. This time around they are pitching “advanced recycling,” sometimes also called “chemical recycling,” to the public, media, and policymakers as a revamped strategy for coping with their rapidly accumulating plastic pollution. In reality, “advanced recycling” is just another harmful industry-driven false fix that delays and distracts from real solutions—most notably turning off the plastic tap. There is nothing advanced about melting down plastic with heat or chemicals to turn it into petrochemical products that are less likely to become plastic and more likely to become dirty fossil fuel energy.

These industries have invested massive funds into lobbying, campaigns, and activities promoting both mechanical and “advanced” recycling, especially among policymakers and investors. Essentially, these industries are trying to reframe the debate around plastic pollution by promoting recycling as an attempt to draw attention away from the real problem, which is plastic production. This strategy is a sneaky approach to continue ramping up plastic production, while seeming environmentally conscious. Some corporations and industry trade groups have gone so far as to form groups that sound like environmentally conscious organizations that outwardly advocate for plastic recycling. But behind the scenes, these groups try to block real solutions to plastic pollution through intensive lobbying and communications campaigns.

Take Action

Scientific experts, Indigenous knowledge holders, and frontline activists have made clear that it is necessary to drastically reduce plastic production to best protect the health of people and the planet. Fortunately, real solutions to plastic pollution already exist today.

You can take action by implementing and supporting plastic-free solutions in your own life, your community, and on wider systems levels. View our guides to learn how to go plastic-free at your home or school, in your community, at your business, or while on the go.

On a systems level, it’s time for policymakers to get serious about addressing plastic pollution and stop wasting time entertaining the plastic and fossil fuel industries’ false solutions. We need policymakers to curb plastics and fossil fuel production, support frontline communities, and implement just, equitable reuse solutions that end wastefulness at the source. Plastic recycling and other forms of greenwashing won’t help us solve plastic pollution. In fact, according to the waste management hierarchy, the first option to take should be to prevent and reduce waste through reuse. We can’t recycle our way out of this crisis, and we can’t afford for the dangerous deception of plastic recycling to be the focus of local or national policies, nor international agreements such as the UN Plastics Treaty. 

You can help reinforce systemic change and real solutions to plastic pollution by signing petitions to the U.S. Government and world leaders preparing to enter the final round of UN Plastics Treaty negotiations this November.

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Over 100 local, state, national, and international NGOs demand no “lies in labeling” and have called on California agencies to enforce laws that protect consumers and end plastic waste dumping abroad. On March 29, 2024, 106 California, U.S., and international environmental Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) sent a letter to CalRecycle, California Secretary for Environmental Protection Yana Garcia, and California Attorney General Rob Bonta, urging factual reporting, implementation and enforcement of California’s plastics laws.

In 2021, California passed two laws related to plastics that were intended to protect consumers from false recyclability labels (SB343) and foreign countries from receiving contaminated plastic waste bales from California (AB881).

CalRecycle’s false approach to determine sortation of plastics must be corrected to ensure truthful packaging labels under SB343, which also ensures truthful determination of what is recyclable under California’s SB54 Plastic Pollution Prevention and Producer Responsibility Act.

– Jan Dell, Independent Engineer & Founder of The Last Beach Cleanup

Instead of effectively managing plastic waste within the state and implementing source reduction efforts that reduce this waste, California is instead exporting a massive amount of contaminated baled plastic waste labeled as “recycling” to countries lacking infrastructure to manage it, and weak labor, health, and environmental laws—where the plastic is unlikely to ever be “recycled.” 

CalRecycle’s own data proves that exported plastic waste bales do not comply with CA AB881, the state’s recycling plastic waste export law, but facility-level information was not shared with the public, which makes public-driven enforcement impossible.

California Must Act Now to Prevent Further Pollution and Injustice

The NGO comment letter urges CalRecycle to revise and correct their SB343 Material Characterization Study Preliminary Findings Report to truthfully show that consumer plastics are not recyclable in California, and to call on CA State Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate material compliance to MRF requirements of AB881 to protect foreign communities from California’s contaminated plastic waste bales. The letter expresses support of the Fact Briefing and Recommendations made in the detailed, comprehensive SB343 Fact Briefing Report (published on Feb. 12, 2024, by Basel Action Network and The Last Beach Cleanup).

Californians pushed hard for laws that would make California’s recycling programs compatible with the Basel Convention, a global treaty which controls global dumping of wastes. Yet now we have discovered that rather than implementing the law as they are charged to do, CalRecycle appears intent on ignoring it while providing pathways to push California waste to Mexico. It is morally, environmentally, and legally unacceptable.

– Jim Puckett, Executive Director of the Basel Action Network (BAN)

Many countries are affected by the illegal waste trade coming out of California and the U.S. The NGOs signed on to the letter are state, national, and global groups, along with grassroots groups in Australia, Egypt, Europe, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Thailand.

It is time for California to turn the tide on false reporting and recycling claims and enforce existing truth in labeling and Illegal plastic waste export laws.

– Jackie Nuñez, Founder of The Last Plastic Straw and Advocacy & Engagement Manager at Plastic Pollution Coalition

Read the full letter here, and learn more about What Really Happens to Your Plastic Recycling.

Take Action

It’s clear that recycling is not the solution to plastic pollution, and that we need upstream measures to be taken that stop plastic pollution at the source. We must convince government leaders to take a strong stance and support a bold, binding global plastics treaty that addresses the full life cycle of plastics. You can help by signing petitions to the U.S. Government and world leaders, and by amplifying the voices of people on the frontlines of the crisis.

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April 5 , 1:00 pm 3:00 pm EDT

Descriptions below in Spanish and English:

Descripción: La Colectiva Malditos Plásticos, la Alianza Global de Alternativas a la Incineración GAIA, y Break Free From Plastic, te invita este 5 de abril a unirte a la conversación acerca del colonialismo de la basura, desde Estados Unidos a México (11 am-1 pm CDMX / 10 am-12 pm PST ). Desde el año 2018 que China cerró sus fronteras a la importación de residuos plásticos, México ha recibido cantidades masivas de residuos plásticos, provenientes principalmente de los Estados Unidos (94%). En esta conversación virtual bilingüe, abordaremos varios temas como: la investigación realizada por la Colectiva Malditos Plásticos, el origen de los impactos de las exportaciones hacia México desde los Estados Unidos, el lanzamiento de la versión en inglés de la Plataforma Colonialismo de la Basura; el reciente reporte de la Basel Action Network/The Last Beach Cleanup que aborda la exportación de plásticos de consumo como una alternativa de reciclaje.

Juntos discutiremos cómo activistas y promotores Basura Cero, pueden tomar responsabilidad para detener las exportaciones de plástico como una falsa solución tanto en el ámbito local como la escena internacional en la próxima reunión de negociaciones sobre el Tratado Global de Plásticos a llevarse a cabo en Canadá.

Traducción Inglés / Español estará disponible.

Description: On Friday April 5 (10 am-12 pm PST / 11 am – 1 pm CDMX) , join Colectiva Malditos Plasticos, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, and Break Free From Plastic for a virtual conversation about U.S. plastic waste colonialism in Mexico. Since the 2018 China ban, Mexico has been receiving massive amounts of plastic waste, with the vast majority exported from the United States (94%). Through this bilingual virtual conversation, we will unpack research exposing the origins and impacts of U.S. waste exports to Mexico, including the newly released English version of the Plastic Waste Colonialism Platform from Colectiva Malditos Plasticos and the recent report from Basel Action Network/The Last Beach Cleanup, “California State’s Own Data Reveals Consumer Plastics are not Recyclable and are Being Exported Illegally”.

Together, we’ll discuss how North American zero waste advocates can take responsibility for stopping plastic waste exports as a colonial false solution in our local work, as well as on the global stage at the upcoming INC4 Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations in Canada. 

Interpretation will be available in English and Spanish.