Arguing that plastics recycling markets are too weak and plastic waste too prevalent, the head of San Francisco waste management firm Recology Inc. is pledging $1 million to jump start a California ballot referendum asking voters to adopt European Union-style limits around plastics.
California voters approved a statewide plastic bag ban in a similar referendum in 2016, but a vote on the much tougher EU approach around single use plastics could break new ground in the U.S.
CEO Michael Sangiacomo made the financial pledge in a late December op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, where he said the company, which serves nearly 900,000 homes and more than 100,000 businesses, has tried for years to find economic solutions for plastic waste it collects.
He also said he's increasingly concerned about the impact of plastic in the environment, including marine litter.
"If the plastics industry is unable to step forward with a set of policies and programs that reverses these unfortunate trends, Recology will work to place a comprehensive policy on the next statewide California ballot — building off the EU model," he wrote. "We are not out to destroy the plastics industry, but we must embrace change."
The EU approach, which is part of its plastics strategy, has included bans and concerted efforts to reduce single-use plastics.
In a Jan. 16 interview, Recology's Senior Director of Strategic Affairs Eric Potashner said the op-ed has led to a lot of feedback and discussion both with industry, including the American Chemistry Council, and environmental groups. The company sent a letter to ACC CEO Cal Dooley asking for dialogue.
Potashner said Recology wants to put a vote on the 2020 ballot. From discussions the company has had since the op-ed, he said it's clear that industry groups "recognize there is a problem."
As well, Potashner said the group also talked with environmental organizations about the ballot initiative, although he declined to identify them. "These are environmental organizations with resources."
Putting a question on the ballot is an expensive undertaking, likely costing between $3 million and $5 million, Potashner said. That does not include the cost of the campaign to then argue the case before voters, he said.
The company is watching to see specific plastics related bills California legislators are expected to introduce in coming weeks, and it may also do polling around the policy questions, Potashner said.
He said his company has invested substantial resources on its own trying to find better uses for plastic waste.
For five years, it employed a chemical engineer who had 25 years of experience in plastics manufacturing in what as an ultimately unsuccessful search for products it could make from the waste or solutions. As well, it invested $14 million last year for what it believes are first in North America high-speed optical sorters and automated systems at its facilities to remove contaminants.
"The simple fact is, there is just too much plastic — and too many different types of plastics — being produced; and there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material," Sangiacomo wrote. "Which makes reuse impossible."
Potashner said some markets, like for PET and HDPE, are stronger than for other types of plastics. He declined to get too specific about what Recology would like to see from the industry, but he said a firm commitment for 30 percent recycled content in products would help drive end markets for recycled material.
And he said Recology would like to "have an honest conversation about should certain materials be in the marketplace."
Potashner said the company has also paid close attention to innovative attempts to find new technology for recycling or reclaiming plastic waste, including chemical recycling, but has not seen anything that can be commercialized.
"Unfortunately, none of these efforts has proven scalable — not with the enormous influx of single-use plastic materials into the marketplace," Sangiacomo wrote.