California’s inability to meet its long-stated goal of cutting solid waste by 75 percent by 2020 has prompted environmentalists to craft a ballot initiative targeting single-use plastic products – including a sharp limit on their production.
The initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot marks the second time in six years that California voters have decided on plastics use. In 2016, an industry-backed referendum, Proposition 67, asked voters to toss out a law blocking retailers, with some exceptions, from issuing single-use plastic bags with their products. The earlier law was upheld.
California lawmakers earlier passed a bill to make it the policy goal of California that not less than 75% of solid waste generated be source reduced, recycled, or composted by 2020.
The latest initiative, the California Recycling and Plastic Reduction Act, would require all single-use plastic packaging and foodware to be recyclable, reusable, refillable, or compostable by 2030.
It would also require that all single-use plastic production be reduced by 25% by 2030, prohibit food vendors from distributing polystyrene food containers, and require producers to reduce or prohibit any single-use plastic packaging or foodware that CalRecycle determines to be unnecessary for that product or food item’s delivery.
Opponents, led by business interests and the industry, said the measure was drawn too broadly, and that it would prove costly, costing families extra expenses they can ill afford.
In 2011, the California lawmakers passed a bill to make it the policy goal of California that not less than 75% of solid waste generated be source reduced, recycled, or composted by 2020.
Today, the state is far from reaching that goal with a 2020 recycling/composting rate of only 42%, a rate that is lower than the 50% achieved from 2012 to 2014.
The state’s failure to meet its goals is part of the reason why several environmental organizations have decided to put an initiative on the ballot this November to reduce single-use plastics in California. This would bypass the state Legislature, where similar legislation has been stymied over the past few years.
“Increasingly, it became clear that it would be difficult to achieve an impactful and measurable reduction in single-use plastics produced through the Legislature – which brought us to work with a coalition that included other waste management, public interest, environmental, and local governments supporting the initiative,” said Jay Ziegler, director of policy and external affairs for The Nature Conservancy in California.
A similar proposal has been given preliminary approval by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.
A key piece of the proposal has drawn sharp scrutiny: For each item of single-use plastic foodware and packaging, producers would be charged a fee of $0.01 or less. The money raised from this – which the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated could be a few billion dollars annually — would go towards the costs of putting the measure into effect, plastic pollution mitigation efforts, and statewide and local recycling, composting, and reduction programs, among other things.
Recology, a waste management company headquartered in San Francisco, is one of the biggest supporters of this measure. In a statement, the company said it “put up the seed money to form a ballot committee and launch a statewide initiative that ultimately led to the California Recycling and Plastic Reduction Act of 2022. We’re proud of our role in launching this important environmental effort and urge Californians to vote in November.”
A similar proposal has been given preliminary approval by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors. This measure would ban single-use plastics in food service and prohibit retail stores from selling “expanded polystyrene,” also known as Styrofoam, products. Notably, this ban would only apply to unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County.
Plastic production doubled between 2000 and 2019, allowing the amount of plastic to grow to 460 million metric tons.
Linda Escalante, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Southern California legislative director, pointed to recent reports about microplastics being found everywhere from remote regions, like the Arctic and Antarctica, to newborn babies and human lung tissue as a reason why it is vital to push for an initiative like this.
“We figured that – kind of learning from the mistakes of climate change and the fact that we let a problem get ahead of us like that – we want to tackle this now,” she said. “The plastic issue is becoming an insurmountable problem for cities and all communities.”
According to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, plastic production doubled between 2000 and 2019, allowing the amount of plastic to grow to 460 million metric tons. This is significant since these plastics have an impact on climate change. This impact is so large, in fact, that the plastics industry is on track to become responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than coal by 2030.
But the opponents of this measure, made up of business and trade groups, argue that this initiative would add direct and indirect costs on households, such as increased recycling costs and the possibility of businesses passing on the tax to consumers in the form of price increases.
‘The cost it will be to replace different packaging, and what it will mean to actually recycle the plastic, it comes out to over $900 per family.” — Rob Lapsley
“One of the things they didn’t work out is the fact that this is going to draw in so many more recyclable materials than what they’re talking about with plastic,” said Robert Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, a business advocacy and research group.
“When you apply that on a broad basis to what families are going to have to do, the cost it will be to replace different packaging, and what it will mean to actually recycle the plastic, it comes out to over $900 per family,” he added.
When asked about the possibility of price increase on products in response to the initiative being passed by voters this November, Adam Regele, a senior policy advocate at the California Chamber of Commerce said, “Yeah, I mean there’s really no way around it … realistically is a rational actor going to absorb all that or does the cost, just like inflation, put pressure on industry to raise prices?”
He added, “Our take, looking from a business perspective, is that you’re effectively raising costs on households across California with this.”
Michael Bustamante, the spokesperson for the “No on Plastics Tax” campaign provided a partial list of 61 items that would be impacted by the $0.01 fee, including water bottles, plastic cups, coffee, and cereal.
One way both environmentalists and business groups could avoid a fight over this initiative going into November is if the Legislature is able to agree on the details of Senate Bill 54.
But Ziegler pointed out that the $0.01 fee included in the initiative is meant to be charged to the plastic producers, not consumers.
“If producers want to pass on this cost to consumers, that’s the producers’ burden, but the whole intention is for this to be an incentive for them to change their packaging materials and to reduce plastic,” said Escalante.
One way both environmentalists and business groups could avoid a fight over this initiative going into November is if the Legislature is able to agree on the details of Senate Bill 54 that those on both sides find acceptable, by the end of June.
That bill, authored by state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), has been around for a couple of years and has failed to get passed into law. However, with the deadline to come to an agreement in the next two months, both sides say they are working to finalize a deal.
“The program that SB 54 creates will substantially reduce the amount of plastic flooding the market and set a clear path for the future with specific recycling benchmarks that plastics producers will have to meet. As difficult and high-profile as this issue is, all of the main stakeholders continue negotiating in good faith and we are now down to hammering out the hardest details,” Allen said.
For the environmentalists, Ziegler says that the ballot initiative frames the objectives that they are trying to attain in their discussions over SB 54, including meeting a similar plastic source reduction goal.
Regele, who represents the business and industry groups, says that reasonable statewide standards on design and labeling for plastics and a pathway towards implementing the infrastructure needed to expand the state’s recycling ability to meet the goals of SB 54 are two major objectives they are attempting to secure.
As negotiations continue, those involved are hopeful that a deal will be reached. If not, however, there is no doubt that there will be a tremendous amount of money spent both in favor and in opposition to this initiative heading into this year’s election.
Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup,
the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly.
Stay up to date on the news you need to know.
Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.