SAN DIEGO — California is probably the most watched state in the country for plastics recycling legislation, and the California Integrated Waste Management Board plays a key role in the debate. Because plastics recycling in California has dropped below a 25 percent target rate, the board for the first time last year enforced a law requiring firms to use recycled content. At a recent state conference on recycling, held in San Diego, Plastics News sat down with the agency's chairman, Dan Eaton, to talk about the government's role in plastics recycling.
Eaton, a lawyer, became chairman in January 1999. Before that, he served as chief of staff for the speaker of the California Assembly, Cruz Bustamante. Bustamante, a Democrat, is currently the lieutenant governor of California. The following are edited remarks:
Plastics News: Should the plastic recycling rate be higher, and what is the Waste Board's appropriate role in managing plastics recycling?
Eaton: In order for us to be successful the public sector has to take a greater role in demanding products that are made out of recycled material. That will then relieve some of the pressure on local governments, because they will be able to find markets for some of the products they diverted.
Plastics News: So you see the government role as creating more demand for recycled products?
Eaton: I think in this instance that's true. I was educated in the Chicago School of Economics, so it's hard for me to talk about public sector participation. But it is very difficult right now to create demand for these products.
Plastics News: The Waste Board has been very aggressive in enforcing the law, pushing companies to use recycled plastic. I want to ask you how you think that implementation has worked and what we can expect from the Waste Board in the future?
Eaton: The one thing I've learned over my short tenure at the Waste Board is you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. There are those who say we haven't enforced enough and there are those who say we have been too aggressive. The issue, really, is this has been a new uncharted course since the rate dipped below 25 percent the last two cycles.
What I'd like to do from the board's perspective, is move the parties off their current positions and set the goals down the road. For instance, should we be taking a more prospective approach? I am sympathetic to the issue that if I want a company or manufacturer to change their ways, they need time to gear up and change their machinery and their approach, technically.
A retroactive approach that we have in California inhibits and penalizes, rather than promotes. At the same time, the problem with a prospective approach is there is very little teeth, if that is not reached. That is where the board needs to go — how do they resolve the idea of what is it that is going to help us understand the dynamics of industry and yet at the same time be able to promote a good public policy.
Plastics News: You talked a minute ago about moving the parties off their current approach. Where do you see common ground as far as rigid plastic container recycling?
Eaton: I find it in the issue of education. The two sides both agree that education is a main component, for different reasons. If you are going to get parties to move off their respective positions, you first have to have some successes so they both feel a sense of trust and confidence. That's nonexistent at the present stage.
Plastics News: Do you also see a need for stronger government mandates, like the group Californians Against Waste is talking about?
Eaton: Mandates in a different sense than you would call them mandates. Mandates in the sense [that] if you are doing business here in California, I think through our bids and specifications asking for products that we can utilize here for the public sector.
Now, the problem happens to be that there are certain technological and scientific barriers. Rather than just try to ignore those, we ought to embrace them and make allowances for them. The perfect example is Toro [Co. of Bloomington, Minn.], with the two-cycle oil container [with recycled content] that had some leakage out of that container. Now, do you penalize them?
No, I think what you look at is we haven't reached the technological plateau yet that we can do this. So how do we resolve this problem, Toro? We've gone ahead and tried to figure out other ways, with their four-cycle oil and other products. I think that's recognizing a barrier and making alternative suggestions and trying to obtain that goal through other means.
Plastics News: The plastics and packaging industry fought hard to get food and cosmetic packaging exempted from the Rigid Plastic Packaging Container law, arguing that it was technically and economically difficult to mandate that. Yet now we see Coca-Cola Co. saying it will use recycled content in portions of its packages, and we see Miller Brewing Co. agreeing to use recycled content. Does it make sense to have a broad exemption for food and cosmetic packaging in the RPPC?
Eaton: That's a difficult question in the sense that any time you have exemptions or exceptions, you run the risk of them engulfing the rule. So it is a situation where, what is the right public policy? I think the Legislature says it is the proper public policy to have these exemptions, given the information before them. I think now there is some different information before them and they would choose whether or not to adhere to the previous policy of exemption.
Plastics News: What advice would you give them?
Eaton: I know better than to give advice to the Legislature, having come from the Legislature myself.
Plastics News: We heard some speakers [at the conference] say that rigid plastic containers are 1 percent of the waste stream, and we shouldn't focus as much attention on them. What do you think of that view?
Eaton: And then someone else mentioned they are 9 percent. There is no question if we continue to duel on statistics, then we all lose. The issue should be, as we have done with tires in the state, we recognize there is an inherent difficulty in the recycling and reuse of these products. And that what we have done with tires is what we should do in the plastics arena — try to set up some special model programs and intensive capital investment to assist all the parties in reaching the ultimate compliance of the law. I think that is the key component.
Plastics News: Can you give me any specifics for capital investment programs or special model programs?
Eaton: There's a couple of things I was thinking of today. Everyone was talking about the tremendous investment of converting your capital equipment to use recycled material, and part of the problem is because virgin material is so cheap. We at the board have recently spent some loans and grant programs to encourage California businesses to get into that marketplace. I think stepping up our efforts there would be a beginning. The other issue we could kind of work on is going in and looking at a particular couple of areas — one rural and perhaps one urban, with some of the issues with single vs. multiple waste streams, with some research on why consumers continually discard some materials. If you don't have a particular segment of the container law applicable to food and cosmetic, you may be losing an opportunity to find some information. Including them in for informational purposes could be just as helpful as for regulatory purposes.
Plastics News: It seems like in your enforcement so far, you have focused on consumer product companies, but not container manufacturers. Is that the way the law is written?
Eaton: I think that had to do with the fact, as I recall, the beginning of the enforcement proceedings. No one has a list of manufacturers. It was kind of a hide-the-ball approach that certain segments of the industry took. ... What we did is go off some of the mailing lists on trade associations' Web sites, and say OK, if you won't voluntarily help us — and they are under no obligation to do so — then you leave us no alternative but to go this route. That is very sad, because I think together I think we can separate those who want to do things from those who don't.
Plastics News: Have you seen more cooperation from industry since then?
Eaton: Yes. Not cooperation in the sense of tattletale, but saying here is how we order our materials. We found that out and go after the right individual.
Plastics News: What do you think generally of the concept of producer responsibility?
Eaton: It's sort of like the Midas muffler — you can pay me now or pay me later. As long as these public policies exist, and I believe they should exist, we need some way to finance the aspect of them that requires compliance. In essence what we are saying is should the responsibility fall on the end-line user, or it should it begin at those who produce the material. That debate is going to be like the chicken and the egg. At some point, it is all one and the same, whether you assess it on the front end or you are left to deal with the remnants on the back side.