The last time California regulators faced a choice between enforcing the state's plastic container recycling law and letting the industry take steps on its own to boost recycling back in 1997, they gave the industry the benefit of the doubt.
Not this time.
The California Integrated Waste Management Board voted 5-0 July 25 to declare the plastics recycling rate below 25 percent for 2000 and certify that the industry is out of compliance with the state's rigid-plastic-packaging container law. That opens up the industry to more enforcement activity from the state agency.
The practical impact is likely to be muted, however, because the state already is negotiating with hundreds of companies to redesign their packaging to boost recycled content, use less material or take other action. Those companies are targeted because California also failed to meet recycling targets in 1998 and 1999. The July 25 vote will add 70 companies to that list of offenders.
The board action sends a signal. The agency staff had recommended not adding more firms to the list, a move backed by plastics industry lobbyists. Board members, who are political appointees of the state governor and legislature, rejected that recommendation.
Board members did not directly address why they rejected their own staff proposal, but board staffers said it was more likely the rate was below 25 percent than above it. Officially, the board certified the rate as 23.8 percent, but because of sampling errors, it could be between 22.7 percent and 25.1 percent.
``We can't rule out the possibility that the actual rate is 25 percent or more, although the probability of the rate being 25 percent or more is small,'' said board staffer John Nuffer.
Environmental group Californians Against Waste had urged the board to certify the industry out of compliance and continue enforcement action. The only reason the recycling rate went up from 17.9 percent in 1999 is because of the bottle bill expansion, which the plastics industry fought against, said CAW Executive Director Mark Murray.
``This is an industry that has not pulled its own weight relative to other industries with recycling,'' Murray said.
He also argued that if you remove the containers captured by the bottle bill, the plastics recycling rate in California is between 8 and 13 percent.
``It burns me that anyone would walk out of this room thinking the plastic container recycling rate is anywhere close to 25 percent,'' he said.
Tim Shestek, manager of state and local public affairs with the American Plastics Council's office in Sacramento, said the staff recommendation would have let the agency and product makers catch up with the recent flurry of board enforcement action stemming from the rate being too low in 1998 and 1999. He urged the board to finish its white paper on plastics, due this spring, before tackling the issue.
APC officials have argued that education efforts, like its pro-recycling campaign in California grocery stores, boosted recycling rates in 2000. They have suggested that it is not clear how much of the increase is from education programs they favor and how much is from the bottle bill expansion.
But the Waste Board said in its proposal that the expanded bottle bill deserves the lion's share of the credit for rising recycling rates: ``These increases can be largely attributed to the expansion of the bottle bill program, which was implemented in January 2000.''
In other action, the board decided that in the future, the recycling rate for the previous year would determine compliance for the current year. That means the board certification that plastics came up short in 2000 also applies in 2001.
The board also approved compliance agreements with 16 additional companies under the RPPC law, part of an ongoing effort involving several hundred firms.