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September 1, 2020 – After multiple close votes and hours of wrangling, California lawmakers on Monday rejected the nation’s toughest statewide restrictions on single-use plastic packaging, food containers and utensils.
The plastics industry had waged a multi-million dollar campaign to defeat the identical Assembly and Senate bills, which would have called for a 75 percent reduction in single-use plastic packaging, utensils, straws, containers and other foodware dumped into landfills. Had they passed, these products would have to be completely recyclable or compostable by 2032 to be sold in California, in stores or online.
The final vote on the last day of the session followed a fiery discussion, in which Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego and author of AB 1080, urged her colleagues to support the measure.
“We know this is a real problem. And it’s not a white, coastal problem. Don’t come to me with that,” Gonzalez said, from behind a Wonder Woman mask. “Because I have a Brown community that is dirty as crap with your plastics. It’s dirty because there’s nowhere to put them.”
But a year after the first iteration of these bills stalled in the Legislature, the measure failed by a narrow margin, with Republicans and moderate Democrats siding against them in both houses.
The defeat comes after the Assembly bill passed the Senate on Sunday with just two votes more than it needed. As voting continued late on Monday night, its companion bill, SB 54 by Sen. Ben Allen, a Democrat from Santa Monica, fell four Assembly votes shy of passing as many Democrats sat out the vote, which wound up at 37-18.
The bills took aim at the worldwide problem of plastic waste, which does not degrade and pollutes land and sea. About 11 billion metric tons of plastics will accumulate in the environment by 2025. The millions of tons that wash into the oceans every year snare and choke marine life, contaminate seafood and pollute even the depths of Monterey Bay.
Supporters said the restrictions would have pushed manufacturers to take responsibility for their products after they’ve been tossed away — by encouraging them to buy back the materials to make recycled goods, or ensure that they are recyclable or compostable.
A significant challenge, however, in enacting recycling laws is that recyclable replacements may not actually be recycled if there is no market for them. And their compostable counterparts may not break down without the high temperatures of an industrial composting facility.
California already has a plastic bag ban and straw restrictions on the books. And another bill requiring plastic bottles to contain at least 50% recycled plastic by 2030 cleared the Legislature Sunday and has been sent to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk.
The European Parliament last year banned disposable plastic items such as utensils and straws, as well as styrofoam cups by 2021. Vermont has banned plastic bags, stirrer sticks and styrofoam containers, and required straws to be only served on request.
Oil companies, manufacturers and a plastic packaging-backed group that opposed the bills said that making manufacturers responsible for the ultimate fate of their products ignores the roles of local governments, waste haulers and consumers.
They also objected to the steep penalties for failing to comply, as well as the authority it gives CalRecycle, California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, to oversee the program. If the act had been signed into law, companies that failed to comply could have faced fines of up to $50,000 per day if they didn’t come up with a plan, and could eventually have found their products banned from sale in the state.
Among the opposition was a group called Californians for Recycling and the Environment, which, despite its name, was formed by major players in the packaging industry, not by environmentalists.
Led by Philip Rozenski, an executive at South Carolina-based packaging giant Novolex, the group spent nearly $3.4 million on lobbying California lawmakers, including $2.3 million explicitly on the two bills. That’s in addition to nearly $50,000 spent on Facebook ads, with the latest push focusing on the coronavirus pandemic. One ad shows a server in a plastic face shield holding a tray of disposable cups, saying, “SB 54 effectively bans products families and restaurants rely on during COVID-19. Vote no.”
“It’s established that the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt our economy and has been especially harsh to communities of color,” Micah Grant, a spokesman for the group, said in an email. “In its current form, SB 54 and AB 1080 would further exacerbate those issues.”
Allen called the industry’s tactics cynical. “I think, at the end of the day, they want to see the bill kneecapped,” he told CalMatters. “We’ve been working really hard with all the legitimate representatives of industry and business to ensure that we’re giving them the tools they need.”
He and Gonzalez pushed back implementation of the act by two years, and exempted small producers, retailers and wholesalers making less than $1 million per year. On the Senate floor, he said that included restaurants.
“There’s more plastic being used now than ever, and as a result, we should be doubling down on our efforts to ensure that the plastic and non-plastic packaging that we’re using will actually end up being recycled or reused,” Allen said.
Still, it wasn’t enough to garner the 41 votes his bill needed to pass. On the Assembly floor, Gonzalez warned that rejecting this measure would leave curtailing plastic waste up to voters.
California employee-owned recycler Recology has backed a 2022 ballot measure banning food vendors from using polystyrene containers and levying a one-penny tax on each item of single-use packaging, containers and utensils sold in the state. Manufacturers would be required to sell at least 25 percent fewer of these products, and ensure that what they do sell is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2030.
One financial analysis estimatesthe tax would bring in “a few billion dollars annually” to help fund waste-reduction, recycling and environmental programs.
“I want to remind folks that we can act or we can wait for a proposition to be put on the ballot and pass, because it will pass,” Gonzalez said on the Assembly floor. “We can have a hand in what this looks like or we can allow other people to do it for us.”
Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research. After studying the links between the brain and the immune system, Rachel left the lab bench with her master’s degree to become a journalist via the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing.
CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. www.CalMatters.org