SACRAMENTO, CALIF. (Jan. 19, 2:15 p.m. ET) — California has eliminated a controversial loophole that has allowed plastic container manufacturers to switch to a lighter weight resin and gain an exemption from the state's 20-year-old rigid plastic packaging container law that governs recycled content.
The law mandates that rigid plastic containers that have a capacity of 8 fluid ounces to 5 gallons have at least 25 percent recycled content if their plastic resin does not have a recycling rate of 45 percent or more.
Companies that have benefitted the most from the exemption — particularly those that have switched from high density polyethylene to polypropylene — are expected to try to get state officials to block that aspect of the revised regulation, or to seek legislative relief that would allow them more time to comply with the law or to use less recycled content, at least initially.
“Manufacturers of polypropylene paint cans, 5-gallon buckets and transport containers have been claiming and receiving an exemption based on source reduction for years because they were lighter than similar HDPE containers,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste.
“Now they are going to have to meet the 25 percent recycled content provision,” Murray said.
The revised regulations, issued Jan. 17 by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, also closes a loophole that have made closeable or heat-sealed clamshell or blisterpack packaging exempt from the law.
The change ends a year-long lobbying battle over the resin-switching and source reduction exemption issue, and represents both a victory and a boost for plastics recycling and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, which had taken a different stance on the issue than the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council.
“Obviously we are extremely pleased and excited that CalRecycle has put forth regulations that will finally enforce the Rigid Plastic Packaging Container law, which we believe is responsible for the creation of the high density polyethylene recycling industry,” said Steve Alexander, executive director of APR, whose members account for more than 90 percent of the post-consumer reprocessing capacity in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
“The [regulations] will not only go a long way toward protecting and enhancing that industry, but will continue to spur on the growth and development of the plastics recycling industry as a whole,” he said.
However, ACC has some concerns with the ruling.
“Overall, we're disappointed by the decision,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the plastics division of the ACC. “We understand it will help recyclers by providing more materials, but we feel that there are better ways to get more material” for recyclers, specifically by increasing efforts to improve collection.
“It is more important to increase collection that to restrict material choices,” Christman said.
In the information ACC provided to CalRecycle, the association pointed to a recent study by Moore Recycling Associates Inc., based in Sonoma, Calif., which found that more than 85 percent of California's population has access to non-bottle rigid container recycling, either through curbside collection or municipal drop-off.
Christman said the revised regulations also change the priorities in the long-used mantra of “reduce, reuse and recycle.”
“We are concerned that it flips reduce, reuse and recycle on its head, so that recycling becomes the priority,” Christman said.
He said the new regulations will reduce the incentive for companies to switch resins to reduce the environmental footprint of packaging unless it is possible, from the onset, to incorporate 25 percent recycled content into the container.
Companies now will only be able to qualify for an exemption from the recycled content mandate if they reduce the amount of material in a container by 10 percent and use the same resin.
“We are concerned that this will cause increases in greenhouse gas emissions by limiting the ability to [switch to] other materials,” Christman said.
The revised regulations become final after they are reviewed by the Office of Administrative Law, which has 30 days to conduct its review. Food, drug, cosmetics, pesticides, and medical device containers are exempt from the law as those containers are regulated by federal agencies.
Despite its reservations about the changes, Christman does not expect ACC to seek legislative relief or to have administration officials block the rules.
“I don't think we foresee any of those things happening at this point in time,” he said.
But clearly, the elimination of the resin-switching exemption represents a short-term dilemma for PP container manufacturers for two reasons:
• Only 35.4 million pounds of PP bottles were recycled in 2009, according to the most recent bottle recycling report from the APR and ACC — compared to nearly 1 billion pounds of HDPE containers and 1.6 billion pounds of PET bottles. The PP bottle recycling rate was slightly more than 18 percent compared to rates above 29 percent for both PET and HDPE.
• In addition, the estimated number of pounds of bulky rigid PP plastics — although that number has increased significantly over the last three years — was just 129 million pounds.
“There is probably not enough polypropylene to meet that [recycled content] requirement,” Murray said. “But the idea of the law is to motivate manufactures to invest in recycling infrastructure.”
“The PET recycling success in California and elsewhere is not an accident,” nor is the HDPE recycling infrastructure, Murray said. “Now polypropylene producers will have to make an investment in recycling for paint buckets.”