Environmental advocates in California who successfully pushed for a ban on single-use plastic bags have expanded their fight against plastic waste, targeting straws and bottle caps and calling on the state to increase the amount of recycled material in plastic water and soda bottles.
The efforts face stiff opposition from the beverage and plastic industries, however, and opponents buried one bill on Monday.
Assembly Bill 319, introduced by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, aimed to reduce plastic bottle cap waste by prohibiting retailers from selling bottled beverages with a cap not tethered to the container. Lacking enough support from fellow Assembly Democrats, he decided to let the measure die without a vote.
Stone said the resistance from the beverage industry on his tethered cap bill was strong and featured the use of misleading tactics.
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“We expected that pushback from the industry,” Stone said. “But at some point, we really owe it to ourselves to pursue a comprehensive strategy to limit overall plastic usage.”
Stone has made efforts in the past to restrict individual plastic products, including unsuccessful attempts to ban plastic cigarette filters. He plans to propose a similar ban again this year and to keep up the effort to limit plastic bottle cap waste.
Stone said he would like to see lawmakers and private industry put together a comprehensive plan to address plastic waste overall, but disagreements have hindered that process. Until that happens, Stone said, “we’re left with policies around individual products.”
Joining the push to limit plastic waste is Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, who introduced a bill last month that would prohibit dine-in restaurants from giving plastic straws to customers unless customers request them. Calderon says the bill would not ban straws but would attempt to limit their use and protect the environment.
“We need to create awareness around the issue of one-time-use plastic straws and its detrimental effects on our landfills, waterways and oceans,” Calderon said in a news release announcing the bill.
Republicans have blasted the effort as unnecessary and an example of the worst kind of restrictive “nanny government.”
Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state GOP official, said while littering should be punished, Calderon’s proposal is “nonsensical” and would impose “overarching restrictions on everyone.”
“Instead of going after people littering, we are going to make law-abiding citizens have restrictions on their straws. It is really ludicrous,” Fleischman said. “If you use a little bit of public education, people will do the right thing without there having to be legislation.”
These recent legislative proposals follow several steps the Legislature has taken in the past few years to reduce plastic waste, such as bans on plastic microbeads in cosmetics and plastic bags.
Bottled water, soft drink and plastic producers have opposed the efforts that target plastic bottles, saying that consumers and producers would face increased costs.
The beverage industry, which argued a tethered cap requirement would be expensive and inconvenient for companies to implement, has previously poured millions into blocking proposals in California that targeted its industry, such as efforts to tax soda and put warning labels on sugary drinks.
The American Beverage Association led the effort against AB 319. “The best way to improve on cap recycling is with public service reminders that get people to ‘Keep the Caps On!’ when discarding containers in recycling bins,” said Fredericka McGee, the group’s vice president of California government affairs and operations.
The association spent nearly $400,000 last year to lobby bills and other legislative matters, including opposing AB 319, according to filings submitted to the California secretary of state. Opponents also are active contributors to legislative campaigns. The ABA donated $52,300 last year to various California lawmaker election campaigns, according to filings. Pepsico gave more than $350,000 to legislative campaigns and the two major political parties in the 2015-16 election cycle.
Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, said the opposition helped sway some lawmakers against Stone’s bill.
“(Lawmakers) told us, ‘Oh, I’ve got a Coke facility in my district,’ or ‘Oh, I’ve got a bottled water facility in my district,’ ” Murray said. “At the end of the day, I’m not sure legislators were all that focused on the substance of (Stone’s bill).”
A coalition of plastic recycling companies is part of the push to mandate the use of recycled plastic – possibly as much as 50 percent – in the manufacturing of new plastic bottles and to extend a program that supports California companies that make new products from recycled plastic bottles.
The group says taking these steps will support green jobs in California and help the state reach its goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, according to the coalition.
The California Plastics Recyclers Coalition includes five California companies that take recycled plastic water and soft drink bottles and turn them into new products. Their push for a recycled plastic content mandate received a boost Monday, when state senators approved Senate Bill 168 to direct CalRecycle to establish minimum recycled content standards for beverage containers, including plastic bottles, by 2023.
California currently mandates that glass containers are made with at least 35 percent recycled material and newsprint with at least 50 percent recycled material. Plastic beverage containers have no minimum recycled content mandate.
Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, introduced SB 168 last year. The bill, which passed the Senate 28-6, will help give momentum to the state’s recycling efforts and generate economic and environmental benefits, Wieckowski said.
“We need to do more to improve recycling,” Wieckowski said. “I think it’s important that if we are going to be the leaders internationally that we have these standards that are higher.”
Californians buy a lot of plastic bottles. For the 2016-17 fiscal year, about 11.88 billion plastic bottles were sold in California, and 8.6 billion of those bottles were recycled, resulting in a 72 percent recycling rate, according to data from CalRecycle, the department that oversees the state’s recycling program.
Some beverage companies, such as Naked Juice, are already producing plastic bottles with higher amounts of recycled content than the mandate would establish, said Paula Treat, a lobbyist for the recyclers’ coalition. Treat said the minimum content mandate would likely range from 15 to 35 percent but could reach 50 percent.
Jacob Barron, senior manager of communications for the Plastics Industry Association, said big beverage companies are already making strides in using recycled content.
“We’re big supporters of using more recycled content, but we’re concerned a mandate might kind of smother that ongoing effort,” Barron said.
The American Beverage Association believes a recycled content mandate would not increase recycling rates in California, McGee said.
“No additional bottles will be collected or recycled as a result of this minimum content requirement,” McGee said. “It would only shift recycled (plastic) in use today from one product to another product and raise the cost.”
Apart from SB 168, other lawmakers are planning on introducing legislation to revive a state program that supported plastic recycling companies, Treat said.
The state directed $10 million per year toward the program, which began in 2007 and encouraged plastic recyclers like the CPRC members to manufacture products from recycled plastic containers. However, the program payments stopped at the beginning of this year, and state lawmakers have yet to reauthorize the program.
Without the incentive program, coalition members could face difficult futures, and the use of recycled material in making new products could decrease, Treat said.
“I think you’re going to see more recyclers going out of business, as virgin plastics are cheaper,” Treat said.
The program provided plastic recycling companies with a $150 rebate for every ton of material processed in state and paid manufacturers who make products out of the recycled material. It helped attract more than $500 million in private investment for the recycling industry, said Rich Costa, director of procurement, sustainability and government affairs for CarbonLite Industries, a Riverside-based plastic recycling plant that is part of the CPRC.
The incentive program also supported in-state recycling, Murray said. More than 204,500 tons of plastic containers were sold in the state in 2016 alone, and more than 96,000 tons of those containers were recycled and processed in California for a 47 percent in-state recycling rate, according to CalRecycle.
CPRC members want to increase that in-state recycling rate, as bottles are otherwise shipped out of state or overseas, often to China, and used to make products there.
But China implemented a ban on imports of recycled materials at the beginning of 2018. Costa said China’s ban, coupled with the stalled plastic market development program, results in a “double whammy” where recycled materials are left sitting in California with no demand for them.
Environmental advocates said taking steps to limit plastic waste is necessary, but they acknowledge how important and prevalent plastic is in California.
“The reality is plastic is not going away,” Stone said. “It’s everywhere.”
Billy Kobin: 916-321-1860, @Billy_Kobin