California’s sweeping new plastics law could be a game changer
It will take several years to find out for sure, but the world’s fifth largest economy will likely force changes far beyond the state’s borders.
One million plastic beverage bottles are bought every minute around the world. The United States creates more plastic than any other nation, but California’s new law could force the country to deal with its plastics problem.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNAH WHITAKER, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
BY LAURA PARKER for National Geographic
PUBLISHED JULY 7, 2022
The United States creates more plastic trash than any other country and ranks third among coastal nations for contributing litter, illegally dumped trash, and other mismanaged waste to its beaches. Yet, even with such an abundance of disposable plastic—scientists measured 46 million tons in 2016—the U.S. manages to recycle just under 9 percent every year.
So, when California’s sweeping legislation on plastic waste was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last week, the moment was heralded as a transformative shift that may redefine how the nation at large deals with the growing amount of plastic waste.
“The magnitude of this legislation really can’t be overstated,” says Anja Brandon, a plastics policy analyst at the Ocean Conservancy, which participated in the lengthy negotiations to craft the bill. “This is the first legislation anywhere in the world that requires a simple reduction in the amount of plastic.”
The new law aims to accomplish several big things at once. Most significantly, it requires a 25 percent reduction of plastics in single-use products in California by 2032—a first in regulatory efforts in the U.S. to restrain the growth in plastic manufacturing, which globally is forecast to triple by mid-century to 32 million tons a year. The reduction can be achieved by shrinking the size of packaging and shifting to refillable containers or packaging made from other materials, such as recyclable paper or aluminum. By the Ocean Conservancy’s calculations, those packaging reductions would eliminate nearly 23 million tons of single-use plastics over the next decade. Californians throw away about 4.5 million tons of plastics yearly, according to CalRecycle, the state’s waste management agency.
The new law also requires 30 percent of plastic to be recycled by 2028, increasing to 65 percent by 2032—a giant leap. It further requires the industry to create a $5 billion fund over the next decade to help low-income communities impacted by the effects of plastic pollution.
Finally, it transfers the cost of recycling to the industry from municipalities and their taxpayers. The practice, known as extended producer responsibility, (EPR) has been in use in the European Union (EU) since the 1990s, and is credited with boosting higher recycling rates in western Europe, which hover around 40 percent.
Canada began such an EPR program last year. Other countries, including India, are in the process of writing EPR regulations. In the U.S., EPR has been introduced in Congress, but so far has failed to gain approval. California’s shift to EPR follows Oregon, Maine, and Colorado, which have passed slightly different versions.
“It’s been a long time for the dam to break in the U.S.,” says Ted Siegler, a waste expert and partner at DSM Environmental Services in Vermont. He has worked with nations across the globe to develop waste management systems, and has long supported requiring industry to finance the cost of processing the trash their products become. “It will take several years before we will see if any of these EPR laws here are going to work.”
California’s long reach
The new law is expected to prompt change in the plastics industry far beyond California’s borders. As the most populous state and the world’s fifth largest economy, California influences markets in ways that other states can’t. Auto manufacturers, for example, agreed to follow California’s fuel emissions standards, which are stricter than federal standards. In plastics, experts predict that product packaging lines, for example, will be adapted to California’s standards no matter where the products are sold.
“A national or global company in all likelihood will make those changes globally or nationally, and not just for the state of California—or Maine,” Siegler says. But he also sounded a cautionary note against counting on the new law to live up to its effusive praise as landmark: “My experience with waste reduction measures is they have always failed to meet reduction targets written into the legislation. It would be great if they were able to (in this case). Proof will be in the implementation.”