Equilibrium & Sustainability

Newsom signs pivotal plastics bill into California law

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law on Thursday a landmark bill that will significantly reduce single-use plastic packaging and utensils in the state over the next decade.

The law — called SB-54 — requires a 25-percent decrease in disposable plastic packaging and foodware accessories by both weight and “plastic component source” by 2032, according to the bill’s text.

A plastic component source refers to any single piece of plastic-covered material, as defined by the bill. Out of 100 juices boxes, for example, 25 plastic straws would need to be eliminated.

“Our kids deserve a future free of plastic waste and all its dangerous impacts, everything from clogging our oceans to killing animals — contaminating the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. No more,” Newsom said in a statement.

“California won’t tolerate plastic waste that’s filling our waterways and making it harder to breathe,” the governor continued. “We’re holding polluters responsible and cutting plastics at the source.”

The bill’s author, state Sen. Ben Allen (D), also touted its passage.

“For far too long, plastic waste has been a growing burden for humans, animals, and the water, soil, and air we need to exist,” Allen said in a statement.

“In this time of extreme polarization in our nation, California was able to show that we can pass strong environmental legislation with bipartisan support that brought together the environmental and business communities,” he added. 

Environmentalists hailed the advancement of the legislation, which passed in the State Assembly on Wednesday night in a 67-2 vote — with 11 votes not recorded — and by 29-0 in the State Senate on Thursday morning.

“It’s hard to capture how momentous this feels,” Anja Brandon, U.S. Plastics Policy Analyst at Ocean Conservancy and a principal contributor to the bill text, said in a statement.

“The United States is the number-one generator of plastic waste in the world and a top contributor to the ocean plastics crisis,” she continued. “We can’t solve this problem without U.S. leadership, and by passing this law, California is righting the ship. This is a huge win for our ocean.”

To accomplish the 25-percent cutback, the bill mandates that at least 10 percent of single-use plastic packaging and utensils either be entirely plastic free or shift from single-use to reuse and refill systems. In total, at least 4 percent of such plastics must transition to these systems.

That combination of eliminating plastics and shifting to reuse and refill could directly remove 23 million tons of single-use plastics over the next 10 years — equivalent to nearly 26 times the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge, according to Ocean Conservancy.

The remaining 15-percent source reduction can occur by transition to bulk or large format packaging or shifting to a nonplastic alternative material, the bill explains. The law mandates, however, no more than 8 percent of such products can be reduced by using post-consumer recycled content plastic.

All single-use packaging and foodware, including non-plastic items, must be recyclable or compostable by 2032, according to the law. By the same year, all plastic-covered material offered for sale, distribution or import into the state must achieve a 65-percent recycling rate, the text reads.

Responding to the legislation’s advancement, Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, stressed that while “the law is not perfect,” it is “a better outcome” than an “anti-plastics” ballot measure that was withdrawn on Thursday evening.

Baca was referring to the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, which would have required a 25-percent reduction by 2030, among other stricter rules. 

That ballot measure faced intense opposition from the business sector, which ultimately led to negotiations among industry, environment groups and politicians on the milder SB-54 bill that Newsom signed into law on Thursday, according to CalMatters.

Removal of ballot initiatives in California needs to occur 130 days before the Nov. 8 election — meaning that the petitioners needed to do so by the end of June, per California state law.

The three petitioners withdrew the ballot measure on Thursday evening, after declaring late Wednesday that they would do so if Newsom signed SB-54 into law, CalMatters reported.

Had that ballot initiative gone forward, the policy could have cost Californians an estimated $9 billion dollars annually but only invested about 30 percent of that into improving recycling, according to Baca.

“Now we will focus on working with lawmakers, regulators, and other stakeholders to help ensure the implementation of SB 54 matches its intent: eliminating plastic waste and improving plastics circularity, while minimizing costs on Californians,” Baca said. 

While Ocean Conservancy had originally supported both the ballot initiative and the bill, a statement from the organization said that the group now favored the initiative’s withdrawal.

“Our number one priority has always been fewer plastics on shelves and less plastic pollution in our ocean, and both SB54 and the ballot measure were viable pathways,” said Nicholas Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program.

“Historically, ballot initiatives face an uphill battle for implementation even when passed, meaning it could be years before any of its provisions would go into effect,” Mallos added. “Not only is SB54 as strong or stronger than the ballot in many ways; but we are looking at guaranteed action on this critical issue immediately.”

Updated at 9:24 p.m.

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