The state of California is considering what many believe are the toughest plastic pollution law in the country, which, if passed, would require industry to recycle or reduce the amount of single-use plastic packaging used for consumer goods. Currently there are three bills before the California state legislature that addresses the issue of single-use plastics and the massive and widespread pollution that comes from the use of this man-made material. The bills would require companies that sell products found in grocery and fast food restaurants to take most of the responsibility in cutting the amount of plastic waste produced.
If the bill(s) become law, by January 1, 2030, all single-use plastic packaging and food products, such as plates, cutlery, cups, bowls, and straws, would have to be made of recyclable materials or made of materials that can be composted. Secondly, by 2030, the bill would mandate a 75 percent reduction in waste that is created by single use plastic packaging in the state. CalRecycle, the state agency tasked with managing the state’s recycling efforts, would be required to draft the rules by 2024.
“Californians want to recycle,” Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, told the San Jose Mercury News. “They want to take responsibility for our waste stream. But the market conditions don’t exist to recycle a lot of these materials. We need manufacturers to step up and take responsibility.”
Industry has opposed the bills, claiming a massive bureaucracy would be created on top of what it sees as a broken recycling system. While many existing containers can be recycled, and there are numbered coding schemes on every recyclable piece of plastic, other items, such as Styrofoam food containers, and milk cartons and juice boxes made of plastic-coated paper, cannot. These items would be banned for sale in the state unless the companies selling them take them back and recycle them, or build them in a way that makes them easily composted.
“We oppose the bills primarily because of the massive bureaucracy that they would set on top of our broken recycling system,” John Hewitt, senior director of state affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told the Mercury News. The GMA represents food, beverage and consumer product companies. “There’s not a shared responsibility.”
Those opposed to this trio of bills say that industry that uses these types of plastics are already working toward recyclable packaging. Five of the largest such companies in the world: Nestle, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Unilever and Anheuser Busch, have already set a 2025 deadline to make their packaging 100 percent recyclable or compostable, while 80 percent of the largest consumer packaging companies have set a deadline of 2030, according to the Grocery Manufacturing Association, which released a paper called Reduce. Reuse. Confuse. How Best Intentions Have Led to Confusion, Contamination, and a Broken Recycling System in America.
The deadline for these bills is today, September, 13, they will either pass or die for the year.
At the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP14) of the Basel Convention, governments in attendance acted to restrict what they call rampant plastic waste exports, requiring countries that are exporting contaminated or mixed plastic waste, to receive prior informed consent from the receiving countries. The Basel Convention is a multilateral international agreement that governs all transboundary movements of hazardous waste for recovery or disposal.
The new rule is in response to developed countries offloading their plastic waste to developing countries in Southeast Asia after China stopped importing plastic waste in 2018.
Countries at the conference noted the increase in marine plastics pollution and microplastics pollution in the world’s oceans and the negative impact these man made materials are having on marine biodiversity, fisheries, tourism, local communities and ecosystems around the world. The concerns over hazardous chemicals found in plastics was also discussed.
The plastic wastes actions adopted at the conference include:
Removing or reducing the use of hazardous chemicals in plastics production and at any subsequent stage of their life cycle.
Setting of specific collection targets and obligations for plastics producers to cover the costs of waste management and clean-up.
Preventing and minimizing the generation of plastic waste, including through increasing the durability, reusability and recyclability of plastic products.
Significant reduction of single-use plastic products.
“With this amendment, many developing countries will, for the first time, have information about plastic wastes entering their country and be empowered to refuse plastic waste dumping,” Dr. Sara Brosché, IPEN Science Advisor said in a statement released to the media. “For far too long developed countries like the US and Canada have been exporting their mixed toxic plastic wastes to developing Asian countries claiming it would be recycled in the receiving country. Instead, much of this contaminated mixed waste cannot be recycled and is instead dumped or burned, or finds its way into the ocean.”
The decision by the UN will have the biggest impact on the United States, because it is not a signatory of the Basel Convention, and the rules prohibit the export of listed wastes from countries that have not ratified the convention.
Researchers with the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, School of Biological and Marine Sciences in the United Kingdom, exposed so-called biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, compostable, and high-density polyethylene, also known as a conventional plastic grocery or carrier bag, to three natural environments in which these bags are commonly found; open-air, buried in soil, and submerged in sea water. They also exposed the bags in controlled laboratory conditions.
The biodegradable bag was constructed in part with oyster shells. Two bags were made with so-called oxo-biodegradable plastic, which the manufacturers of this type of plastic says contains additives to help break the bag down faster. And the final bag was a compostable bag made from plant-based material.
The results were fairly alarming, as the bags didn’t degrade as they would seem.
“What is the role of some of these really innovative and novel polymers?” said Richard Thompson, a marine biologist from the University of Plymouth and the study’s senior author who questioned the chemicals that make up the structure of plastic.
“They’re challenging to recycle and are very slow to degrade if they become litter in the environment,” Thompson told PBS.org. He noted that the so-called biodegradable plastics could be causing more problems than what they were intended to solve.
The researchers found that the compostable bag disappeared completely in a marine environment in three months, but was still found in the soil after more than two years buried, but could no longer carry a load without tearing. The other bags, after nine months exposed to all elements broke apart into fragments. Their study showed that over a three year period none of the four bag types showed any serious deterioration in any of the environments.
“It is therefore not clear that the oxo-biodegradable or biodegradable formulations provide sufficiently advanced rates of deterioration to be advantageous in the context of reducing marine litter, compared to conventional bags,” the researchers wrote in their study.