California’s New Plastics Pollution Law Is A Harbinger Of What’s To Come

As plastic waste legislation becomes more critical and sees further adoption around the world, it’s worth understanding California’s new law–what led to its passage, what inspired its design, what concerns it has raised, and why it is well-timed.

For a few decades, Big Oil has had another trick up its sleeve in its quest to exploit the planet for profit for as long as possible: plastics. Fossil fuel companies see plastics as a revenue stream that could potentially replace their traditional business model of selling fossil fuels. 

Plastic production rose after World War II and has exploded over the last few decades even as demand for more conventional fossil fuel products has either grown more slowly or stagnated. Since large-scale plastics production began in the 1950s, global production of resins and fibers (source materials for plastics) has skyrocketed from two megatons in 1950 to 460 megatons in 2019. That’s about a 230-fold increase in plastics compared to a roughly sevenfold increase in overall fossil fuel consumption over that time frame.

That growth won’t stop anytime soon. Assuming historical growth trends continue, global production could reach 1,100 megatons by 2050. Today, plastic production consumes less than 10% of all oil produced. By 2050, that figure is expected to jump to 20%. Producing plastic is inherently harmful…disposing of it might be even worse. Less than 10% of globally consumed plastic is recycled. The rest either ends up in landfills or the ocean. 

Plastic pollution decimates wildlife, suffocating them and/or ruining their internal health. Plastic waste can release harmful chemicals into soil, affecting drinking water for humans and non-human species alike. Microorganisms like viruses and bacteria can use plastic particles to hitchhike, thereby spreading through existing environments or finding new ones.

Moreover, as the United Nations reports, “the level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use, and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19 percent of the global carbon budget by 2040.”

Clearly, the stakes are high to rein in plastic pollution going forward. After years of highly charged political wrangling, California recently made major legislative headway in combating plastic waste with the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act, aka SB54. As this sort of legislation becomes more critical and sees further adoption around the world, it’s worth understanding California’s new law–what led to its passage, what inspired its design, what concerns it has raised, and why it is well-timed.

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What Spurred SB54?

The initial impetus for crafting this sort of legislation in California occurred on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. California once exported about a third of its recyclable materials, much of it to China. But in 2017, China abruptly announced a new National Sword policy to stop the smuggling of illegal scrap imports. It strengthened contamination standards and banned imports of certain types of waste. Since then, several waste-related bills have been crafted but they’ve mostly focused on singular waste-related issues rather than providing a more comprehensive framework to tackle this crisis. They’ve had mixed success.

SB54 was first introduced in 2019, then again in 2020. COVID put a wrench in the legislative process, which inspired people who believed California’s legislature would never get a deal done to introduce their measure and leave it up to California voters, nearly 900,000 of whom voted in 2021 to put that measure on the 2022 ballot.

Many environmental groups had planned to support the competing ballot measure in the upcoming November midterm elections. But, as a late June deadline approached to withdraw the measure from the ballot, pressure rose to craft a robust piece of legislation that all parties– industry, environmental groups, and government officials–preferred over the ballot measure. SB54 sailed through California’s House and Senate before Governor Gavin Newsom signed it into law on June 30. 

What Does The SB54 Include?

SB54 includes several provisions aimed at reducing plastic pollution. It “mandates a 25% reduction of single-use plastic packaging and foodservice products by 2032, with nearly half of that reduction coming from either switching to reuse and refill systems or the direct elimination of plastic packaging.” SB54 also requires the achievement of a 30% recycling, reuse, or composting rate for single-use plastics used in the state by 2028, followed by targets of 40% by 2030 and 65% by 2032. By mandating both less plastic production and that all single-use plastic be either recyclable or compostable, SB54 goes a long way toward attacking the roots of this crisis. 

Furthermore, under SB54, plastic makers “would pay for recycling programs and will be charged fees based on the weight of packaging, the ease of recycling and whether products contain toxic substances, such as PFAS, a type of virtually indestructible chemicals that have been linked to increased risk of some cancers.” These provisions put the responsibility on those who produce plastics rather than those who consume them to clean up the mess. This is called extended producer responsibility (EPR). California became the fourth state to pass EPR legislation after Oregon, Maine, and Colorado. EPR is the intellectual underpinning of SB54 and is critical to understanding the context of plastic waste mitigation.

By mandating both less plastic production and that all single-use plastic be either recyclable or compostable, SB54 goes a long way toward attacking the roots of this crisis. 
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What Is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)?

The ultimate solution to the plastic waste problem–and many other environmental issues–is a circular economy in which we “eliminate what we don’t need, innovate towards new packaging, products, and business models, and circulate all the packaging we do use, keeping it in the economy and out of the environment” in the words of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading circular economy proponent.

However, there’s a big obstacle in the way of circular economy adoption: cost. Companies can make money collecting, sorting, and recycling packaging. But it typically isn’t profitable. Without some sort of intervention, companies won’t be incentivized to ensure the packaging doesn’t pollute the environment.

That’s where extended producer responsibility (EPR) comes in. EPR entails adding all of a product’s environmental costs (throughout its entire life cycle) to the market price. It corrects the free market’s tendency to hide some of a product’s costs, particularly toward the end of its life cycle. And, it incentivizes manufacturers to achieve higher environmental standards in product design.

EPR alone is not sufficient to reduce the pollution of most products, whether they’re made of plastics or not. But, it can be a handy tool in the toolkits of governments and regulators seeking to rein in pollution for products whose improper disposal can wreak havoc.

EPR entails adding all of a product’s environmental costs (throughout its entire life cycle) to the market price.

For instance, EPR has proven popular as a way for governments and companies to work together to address the growing e-waste crisis. Plus, long before the passage of SB54, California had adopted some of America’s most stringent EPR laws for products like paint, mattresses, thermostats, and pharmaceuticals. But in terms of breadth and impact, SB54 will likely prove far more consequential, given the gravity of the global plastics crisis.

Under SB54, producers of so-called covered material–defined as certain single-use packaging and plastic single-use food service ware–will have two choices: join a producer responsibility organization (PRO) by January 1, 2024, or be banned from doing any business involving covered material in California.

Each of these PROs must develop a plan and a budget to comply with SB54. Once each PRO’s plan and budget are approved by CalRecycle, the PRO must register each of its participating plastics producers with CalRecycle and maintain and submit records of each producer’s plastic production. Collectively, the PROs must pay $500 million in annual fees over the next decade to create a $5 billion California Plastic Pollution Mitigation Fund and to cover the state’s enforcement costs: 60% of that funding must be spent to offset the impact of plastics on disadvantaged and low-income communities or rural areas.

This EPR approach seems fairly strict. California is the fourth state to pass an extended producer responsibility law for packaging behind Maine, Oregon, and Colorado. But as with just about any piece of legislation, it does not have a 100% approval rating.

What Concerns Some People Have About The Law

Compared to the ballot measure that California was ready to present to its voters, SB54 gives the plastics industry more time to get in line. The ballot measure would have mandated compliance by 2030 instead of 2032. That alone has given some people pause that plastics polluters will work judiciously to cut down on waste and adhere to both the law’s provisions and the spirit behind it. 

But California’s environmental community has bigger concerns. Some environmentalists worry that SB54 will allow for chemical recycling to count toward the law’s targets. Chemical recycling is a highly controversial form of waste management. Generally speaking, it uses heat and/or chemical reactions to break down used plastics into new plastic, fuel, or other chemicals. 

Critics argue the term doesn’t do justice to what the process entails. There are various types of chemical recycling, some of which do result in proper plastics recycling. But many chemical recycling processes “generate a limited amount of energy in a one-time process, destroying them rather than giving them another material use.” Meanwhile, excessive toxic waste is often leaked, and environmental injustice is exacerbated.

This debate has reached the highest levels of the United States government. In July 2022, 35 federal lawmakers sent a letter urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to continue regulating chemical recycling technologies as waste combustion rather than actual recycling. Meanwhile, over 100 environmental groups sent a separate letter to the EPA in which they lambasted chemical recycling as an unsafe technology that could be used to turn plastics into fuel instead of recycling them into new plastics.

Another concern is that some of the law’s wording could create enough wiggle room for plastic wasters to carve loopholes and exempt certain product categories from regulation. For instance, some of the law’s language would allow CalRecycle to exempt materials that present “unique challenges” in complying with the EPR provisions. Judith Enck, founder, and president of Beyond Plastics, worries this wording could invite legal challenges to exempt a wide array of plastic products, which could become a legal headache for California.

The EPR framework has also raised concerns that giving plastics polluters this much power to manage their waste is a grave mistake. In the midst of final negotiations on SB54, members of 18 environmental justice groups in California urged ballot petitioners to keep their anti-pollution measure on the ballot, saying they “just don’t have confidence that an industry so prone to deceiving the public for so long about the impacts of its products on our communities and our planet will now take the starring role in its own demise voluntarily.”

In short, the debate over EPR gets right to the heart of many environmental debates: who can be trusted to clean up the mess? 

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Why SB54 Is Well-Timed

As with many other aspects of our global environmental headache, people in power are starting to act against plastic waste. In July 2021, the European Union passed a Directive on Single-Use Plastics, which bans more than ten types of single-use products and requires EU member states to limit their use of other single-use plastic items, among other provisions. Canada began an EPR program similar to California’s last year, and India banned most single-use plastics as of July 2022. 

Most importantly, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) resolved to develop a treaty on post-consumer plastic pollution by the end of 2024. The treaty will likely include measures to deal with microplastics as well as improved product design and biodegradability. An agreement of this scale typically takes five to ten years, so the expedited timeline reflects a growing sense of urgency by governments and diplomats about the scourge of plastic waste. This global treaty may be the most significant environmental treaty since the Paris Agreement. 

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How SB54 Could Affect Sustainable Packaging Innovators Like A New Earth Project (ANEP)

Oftentimes, government policy, whether it be legislation or regulations, or other measures, can boost a transition that’s already inevitable but would take longer in its absence. 

Plastics have dominated packaging for decades because of how cheap and versatile they are. As such, economics alone won’t incentivize a shift away from them. But strong government policies can encourage the adoption of many different types of packaging.

A New Earth Project, which is a partnership between the surfing and outdoor communities and the packaging supply chain meant to spark greater adoption of sustainable packaging, has developed a robust collection of products, protocols, and capabilities with the goal of presenting effective and efficient consumer products that are 100% curbside recyclable and do not include any single-use plastics. 

The project’s founder, Wes Carter, runs Atlantic Packaging–the largest privately-held packaging company in North America. Wes has leveraged his experience and connections within the packaging industry to build a broad-based coalition of support through A New Earth Project that can translate Atlantic Packaging’s innovation into solutions for all manner of customers around the world. 

Given California’s economic position and the likelihood that SB54 will encourage legislation in other states, SB54 is effectively a national mandate (and perhaps even an international one) to transition from conventional packaging to sustainable packaging. Just as California’s new law can induce a ripple effect across governments, the interconnected nature of the packaging industry gives sustainable packaging producers like Atlantic Packaging–whose customers include Procter & Gamble, QVC, Bass Pro Shop, and Williams-Sonoma –a golden opportunity to capitalize on a growing aversion to plastic waste.

Conclusion

Overall, SB54 is a monumental step forward for plastic waste mitigation. It will greatly reduce plastic waste in California by nearly ​​23 million tons in the next decade, according to Ocean Conservancy. This is the equivalent to about 26 times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge. In the context of the 11 million tons of plastic waste that annually enter the world’s oceans, according to the United Nations, SB54 will probably slash plastic waste considerably. And, SB54 is not the only plastics-related bill California has passed lately. One 2021 law makes it easier to implement refillable glass beverage bottle systems, and another requires single-use plastic items to be provided only upon request rather than by default for takeout and delivery orders.

Just months after Governor Newsom signed SB54 into law, California became the world’s fourth-largest economy, surpassing Germany. This underlines the power California has to move markets and set trends, something the state has taken advantage of before and seeks to leverage again in the fight against plastics. The onus now lies on citizens and environmental groups to hold an account to power. SB54 holds polluters responsible for mitigating their plastic waste for years to come in California. But as always, they need to be held in check to ensure they are doing what is both needed and now legally required to protect the environment. This law gives other jurisdictions, within and beyond the United States, a model to enact similar legislation that could help turn the tide against one of the biggest environmental threats we face.

Key Takeaways
  • Plastic production has increased about 230-fold since 1950 compared to a roughly sevenfold increase in overall fossil fuel consumption over that time frame.
  • SB54 includes a number of provisions aimed at reducing plastic pollution, including a 25% reduction of single-use plastic packaging and food service products and the achievement of a 65% recycling, reuse, or composting rate for single-use plastics used in the state by 2032.
  • Extended producer responsibility (EPR) entails adding all of a product’s environmental costs (throughout its entire life cycle) to the market price and is the intellectual underpinning of SB54.
  • SB54 will greatly reduce plastic waste in California by nearly ​​23 million tons in the next decade, according to Ocean Conservancy