Environmentalists scored two key victories in a politically charged recycling fight in California, with the state Senate adopting an expanded bottle bill June 2 and agreeing to put food and cosmetic packaging back in the state's recycling law June 3.
The votes were the Legislature's most significant plastics recycling action taken in six years, according to California environmentalists, and reflect political muscle-flexing on the part of Democrats who now control the Legislature and the governor's office. Both bills now must go before the state Assembly.
``What we have seen is, the plastics industry has failed [in] its voluntary steps to curb plastic packaging waste in California,'' said Lance King, spokesman for Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste.
Industry members say the bills are costly, unrealistic and could weaken the safety of food packaging.
Here's what the bills propose:
The bottle bill would expand the state's 12-year-old container-deposit system to include noncarbonated water, juice, teas and sports drinks. It would double the deposit on 20-ounce containers to a nickel, a shot aimed directly at popular single-serve PET bottles, which are blamed for falling plastic recycling rates.
The recycled-content bill would put food and cosmetic packaging back in rigid-packaging recycling laws. They were removed in 1996.
The latter bill would raise the plastics recycling rate target to 35 percent, from 25 percent. If the rate falls below 35 percent, manufacturers would have to use 35 percent recycled content, source reduce or make reusable packaging.
But the sponsor of the recycled-content bill, Sen. Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, agreed to amend the bill in response to industry concern about using recycled content in food packaging. The amendment would give manufacturers credits if they can prove they are subsidizing recycling in volumes equal to the recycled content they would use, said Chesbro aide Bob Fredenburg.
That provision was essential to getting the bill passed, observers said.
``This approach is putting horrendous and unlivable pressure on our customers: dairies and the food and cosmetics industry,'' said Roger Bernstein, vice president of government affairs for the Washington-based state-government unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the American Plastics Council. There is ``real liability for people forced to use recycled content,'' he added.
``We are dealing with the politics of majority control,'' Bernstein said. ``We have an Assembly that is maybe as daunting or more than the Senate, so we have our work cut out for us.''
The California legislation comes as Wisconsin lawmakers, angered over what they call weak recycling markets, are dealing with their own recycled-content bill.
The Wisconsin bill would require all plastic containers to have 10 percent recycled content by Jan. 1, 2001, 20 percent by 2003, and 25 percent by 2005. It would apply to food and nonfood packaging, and would exempt only containers that are not allowed to contain recycled materials under Food and Drug Administration rules.
It is sponsored by two influential members of the Wisconsin Assembly — the Republican chair of the Natural Resources Committee, DuWayne Johnsrud and the leading Democrat on the Environment Committee, Spencer Black. Some observers predict it has a good chance of passing the Legislature.
Johnsrud aide Scott Looman said the plastics industry told state legislators in 1990 that recycling markets would be self-sufficient by 2000, but the markets remain weak. Black said the state backed away from container deposits and other legislative fixes after the industry made commitments to develop markets for recycled plastic.
``People are extremely upset about the plastics industry giving their word and breaking it,'' Black said. ``There are a number of people who feel they've been played for a fool.''
Bernstein said the state will have a hard time legislating stronger markets in Wisconsin because recycling markets do not follow state boundaries. He also noted that singling out plastic also could force packagers to use less-recyclable materials, such as plastic-coated paperboard containers for milk instead of high density polyethylene.