Can the California plastics law solve our plastic problem?
“Approximately 40% of all plastics created right now are single-use plastic,” says Megan J. Wolff, Ph.D., M.P.H, Policy Director at Beyond Plastics. “They’re basically instant trash.” The impacts of this are felt widely, polluting not just our streets, but our waterways and soils. Thanks to a law in California signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom this past June, there could be much less plastic waste in California within a decade, serving as a potential pilot for this legislation being enacted elsewhere.
The landmark legislation requires that all packaging in the state be compostable or recyclable by 2032, and sets guidelines for increasing the levels of recycling of plastic packaging in the state by the same year. By signing SB 54 into law, Newsom seeks to hold polluters responsible, shifting the burden of responsibility for plastic pollution from consumers to the plastics industry. This will be achieved by raising $5 billion from industry members over a 10-year period, funding efforts to cut plastic pollution and support the communities most affected by it. The Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act asks producers of covered material to form and join a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) by January 2024. These PROs will collect fees from the member producers, and will work to ensure compliance with the requirements. PRO participants are asked to reduce the amount of plastic packaging by 25% by 2032. This might be achieved by measures such as lightweighting or shifting to an alternative material.
Matt Prindiville, CEO of the nonprofit Upstream, has been working to promote this idea of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for more than 20 years. Naturally, he’s pleased to see the focus on this in the California law, but he points out that increasing recycling rates won’t necessarily diminish the consumption of natural resources for some industries. For this reason, he is adamant that EPR needs to be a vehicle for creating a circular economy for packaging, and sees the California law as a step towards reusables. “It’s the first time in the United States that we have reuse targets enshrined in law,” he says. “There is a provision in the bill that requires a certain amount of the plastic substitution to be done through reusable packaging systems and reusable foodware systems. And so that’s super exciting.”
The problems with recycling
One problem that currently persists, Wolff says, is the flawed plastics recycling system. “It was never designed to work,” says Wolff. “It was designed to allay the fears of consumers.” Many of us tend to feel good about recycling, and the avoidance of plastic altogether could feel less urgent to us if we believe it’s being used again.
It’s not an accident that many of us feel responsible for plastic waste. Ad campaigns have long focused on shifting blame for plastic pollution to the public, instead of the companies that produce the plastic products that become waste. But as a consumer, it’s nearly impossible to avoid consuming any plastic, and no matter how diligently we attempt to dispose of our plastic waste, much of it will end up in landfill. Wolff points out that even plastics that are recyclable in theory are often too contaminated to be recycled, and that across the country, different facilities have their own rules about and capabilities for what can and cannot be recycled, which confuses well intentioned recyclers.
For these reasons, even items that we place in recycling bins could still ultimately end up in the trash. And given the fact that in many cases, it’s less expensive to manufacture brand new plastics than to recycle old plastics into new products, it’s hard to get companies onboard with displacing virgin production.
The EPR focus of the new law will be paramount in addressing this long-standing issue. But the legislation aimed at producers is not the only tactic at play to reduce plastic waste in California. For example, in LA County unincorporated areas, restaurants are being asked to reduce their plastic usage.
Shifting away from plastic
The LA County ordinance will take effect from May 2023 for eateries with permanent locations, and requires that single-use cutlery and containers be recyclable or compostable. It’s a move that reinforces the trend towards plastic reduction in the state, following bans of single-use plastic in Marin County and other Bay Area communities. It’s not just California that is making these moves. In the past decade there have been other legislative efforts to reduce plastic, such as in New York City, where establishments were prohibited from distributing single-use plastic straws unless specifically requested by the customer.
COVID-19 had the unfortunate consequence of slowing down the move away from single-use plastics. In some cases, single-use plastic bag bans were suspended due to COVID concerns, and when dining outside of food establishments became the norm because of lockdown measures, the use of plastic to-go containers surged. “We knew that the plastics industry was going to make hay with COVID, and they very much did,” Wolff says. She wanted to focus on finding ways to inspire restaurants in particular to play their part in tackling this issue, and she recently authored a guide aimed at the restaurant industry. It is focused on how establishments can cut back their use of plastic, and contains practical advice that helps restaurants explore strategies for reducing plastic waste, with tips on auditing, getting team members onboard with the initiative and honing messaging to customers.
Reducing the amount of plastic used in packaging or replacing plastic with more eco-friendly alternatives will be a huge improvement, but many of those products come with some of their own environmental problems and may still butt up against the limitations of our flawed recycling and composting systems. One popular avenue for replacing plastic takeout containers is using biodegradable cardboard ones instead. But as Wolff’s guide points out, containers that are compostable often can’t be composted in a backyard composter. Instead, they must be processed in an industrial facility, with a high enough temperature to break down the product. For communities that don’t have composters located locally, even compostable packaging could end up in landfill. Worse still, some so-called compostables have a greaseproof barrier containing PFAS. These ‘forever chemicals’ are responsible for preventing containers from becoming soggy from contact with moist and hot foods, but are linked to health problems, and have no place in a compost heap.
For these reasons and more, Wolff, like Prindiville, ultimately advocates for reusables over disposable alternatives to plastic.
Towards the reuse economy
Wolff points out that building systems to keep more of our materials in rotational use is what we need to do, if we truly want to solve the problem of plastic overproduction. In her guide, she highlights some companies that are focusing on providing reusable containers to restaurants. Once returned by the customer — either to the establishment where they purchased the food or placed in a designated drop container in the area — the container is collected by the provider, cleaned and then returned to the restaurant for reuse. Wolff claims that it could be far more cost-effective for restaurants in the long term. “The difficulty is for the individual restaurants to take on the risk of implementing that system,” she says, pointing out that for many eateries, it could feel like taking a big financial risk.
Prindiville calls it a chicken and egg problem: there are restaurants that want to do the right thing but can’t do it alone. While some restaurants and larger chains will be able to implement their own reusable serviceware schemes, many will be too small to shoulder the cost of the logistics. “In order for us to do reuse at scale, we have to have infrastructure,” Prindiville says.
The key to real change, according to Upstream, is remaking packaging as a service, instead of a product. In other words, instead of making the goal higher recycling rates, it should be to reduce the volume of resources we are taking from the planet in the first place. “We do that by prioritizing waste reduction and reuse ahead of recycling,” Prindiville says. He points out that even if plastic could be severely reduced or eliminated, production of alternatives still consumes excessive resources and harms the planet in many cases. “One out of every 10 trees that’s cut down in the world goes to make packaging,” Prindiville says. Plus, one fifth of aluminum mined and half of all glass produced goes primarily to make packaging for consumable products. “If we can start to reduce the demand and need for all of that single-use packaging through reuse, you’re going to start to see those numbers come down,” Prindiville adds.
For these reasons, while laws like California’s targeting plastic are a step in the right direction, these types of shifts will not be enough to tackle the problem of excessive consumption of our planet’s resources that has been going on for many years. Both Prindiville and Wolff emphasize the ultimate need to move towards finding ways to keep more of our materials in rotational use. “Plastic pollution is a symptom of a broken system,” says Prindiville. “It is not the heart of the problem.”