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California Plastics Law Likely to Have National Impact

August 19, 2022 (5 min read)

Saying “Our kids deserve a future free of plastic waste and all its dangerous impacts,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation on June 30th that imposes the nation’s most far-reaching regulations on single-use plastics.

So far-reaching, observers believe the law is likely to have significant influence well beyond the Golden State’s borders.

States Shifting Recycling Costs from Consumers to Producers

The measure Newsom signed makes California the fourth state to adopt a policy of extended producer responsibility, or EPR, toward plastic packaging.

EPR incentivizes manufacturers to use more environmentally friendly materials by making them responsible for the costs of managing those products through the end of their life. The goal is twofold: reducing the total amount of plastic packaging on the front end and shifting the responsibility for recycling plastic packaging from where it stands now – with consumers and local governments – to packaging manufacturers on the back end.

Under SB 54’s many tenets, all forms of single-use packaging, including paper, food serviceware and metals, must be recyclable or compostable by 2032. The law further requires a 25 percent reduction in all plastic packaging – from shampoo bottles to bubble wrap - by 2032 and requires 65 percent of all single-use plastic packaging to be recycled in the same timeframe.

Plastic manufacturers are now also on the hook for an annual $500 million fee ($5 billion over the next decade) to mitigate against costs associated with the impact of plastics on the environment and human health.  

The law applies to packaging manufacturers using materials that are routinely recycled, such as plastic forks, cups, straws, etc. Being outside of California won’t automatically negate that responsibility either as the law applies to any entity that owns or is the licensee of the brand or trademark under which those products are sold or otherwise distributed in the state.

Failure to comply could be quite costly. The law allows regulators to assess fines up to $50,000 per violation per day.

That places California firmly at the forefront of a growing effort around the country to reduce the amount of plastic wastes that not only pollute the environment, but increasingly are showing up inside human blood and organs

Will CA Law Change Plastics Packaging Nationwide?

While California is not the first to crank up its plastics recycling mandate – Maine adopted its measure in August 2021, followed shortly thereafter by Oregon and then Colorado in June of this year a few weeks before California came on board - it is the first to codify an overall reduction mandate in plastic production in addition to an increase in required recyclability.

The law was hailed by a wide range of environmental groups, who believe it will lead to a drastic reduction in overall plastic wastes in the environment. But it was hardly a smooth road getting there.

California Sen. Ben Allen (D) first introduced legislation in 2019, but that bill failed. So did the next one in 2020, leading a handful of environmental groups to break off and push for a ballot measure instead. They succeeded in collecting enough signatures to get a proposal on the November 2022 ballot, but then agreed to pull the measure after environmental groups and plastics industry representatives reached an agreement on what eventually became SB 54.

While the original version of that bill drew heated opposition from numerous environmental organizations who said it wasn’t strong enough and relied too much on the industry policing itself, a majority of environmental groups ultimately gave the final version their support.

Jennifer Fearing, a Sacramento lobbyist who was instrumental in negotiating that final bill, believes both industry and environmentalists have reason to be happy with the measure.

“This law is the strongest single-use packaging law in the country, if not the world, from an environmental standpoint,” she told the Capitol Weekly podcast last week.

It is also not likely to be the last bill of its kind. According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition at least 16 states considered similar bills this year, including New York, North Carolina, Connecticut and Virginia. 

Fearing and Allen both say they expect that trend to continue, and Allen says he is already speaking about it with lawmakers in Washington and Oregon, among other states. 

Will CA Law Push Industry to Cut Plastics on Its Own?

While lawmakers around the country continue with legislative efforts, Fearing said she believes the law will push industry more toward environmentalists’ reduction goals even if more states don’t follow the lead set by states like California and Maine.

“Proctor & Gamble isn’t going to create packaging for California, they’re going to create new packaging,” she said. “We expect this to have an effect on the rest of the country whether they adopt the same rules or not.”

That is due to several factors, including the sheer size of the California market and the global nature of many modern supply chains.

In a recent commentary for Packaging World, Chicago-based attorney Eric Greenberg compares SB 54 to California’s Proposition 65, the 1986 voter-approved ballot measure that requires businesses to post warnings about various potentially harmful chemicals contained in their products.

Greenberg compares Prop. 65 to an international treaty because “its requirements have become a routine part of supplier information worldwide, all because companies want to lawfully sell their products in California and also don’t want to have to make one California-only product and another for sale everywhere else.”

In that regard, he says, “this complex new law’s various requirements could soon have the same practical effects such that they, too, also become like an international treaty.”

As with many such comprehensive efforts, lawmakers will be looking to address many of SB 54’s details in future legislative sessions. Allen, who also sponsored this year’s measure, told the Sacramento News & Review those efforts will focus on glass and e-waste recycling.



States Shifting Recycling Costs to Producers

Seventeen states have introduced extended producer responsibility, or EPR, legislation this session, making plastic packaging manufacturers responsible for the materials they use through their entire life cycle, according to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Four of those states have enacted such bills.


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