We could be seeing a shift in plastics recycling legislation in the United States in potentially far-reaching laws being debated in California.
I'm not thinking only of the laws themselves, but rather two new commitments made by the plastics industry as part of the debates: endorsing a fee on takeout food containers and accepting some level of legally mandated recycled content in PET bottles.
They are potentially significant new commitments. The American Chemistry Council and its plastics division said it's OK with a small fee of three-tenths of a penny on takeout containers — of all kinds, not just plastics. And the PET bottling and beverage industries have told lawmakers they would be OK with a law requiring some level of recycled content in PET bottles.
Both are big shifts in response to some even tougher bills that have real political momentum in California. The ACC statement, for example, is part of a bill being debated in Sacramento that would require some single-use packaging to meet recycling targets, or it couldn't be sold in the state.
More importantly — and here's the biggest potential change — I could see these commitments easily showing up in laws in other states.
Here's what I mean: It's easy to see an enterprising state legislator in, let's say, Albany arguing that since the American Chemistry Council is OK with a fee on takeout food containers in California, it should be OK with the same tax in New York state. Or Massachusetts. Or Michigan.
ACC estimates the fee will bring almost $100 million a year to California to fund recycling and composting. ACC envisions it would be collected in the distribution chain, not when the consumer buys takeout food.
Other state governments are going to want that money, as their cities struggle with paying for waste collection and recycling.
China's National Sword and low virgin resin prices are hurting U.S. recycling, and lawmakers in California argue that's costing their cities and taxpayers. They say those financial pressures are a big motivator for their legislation.
I can see a similar pattern playing out in nationalizing the industry commitments around PET bottles.
In late June, the Plastic Recycling Corp. of California, a nonprofit set up by the PET bottle sector and beverage companies to support recycling, wrote California legislators that its companies were OK with a state law requiring 25 percent recycled content in PET by 2025.
That's a significant statement for the industry group.
"We support recycled content in beverage bottles and can support legislation that provides a mandate of 10 percent by 2021 and steadily increases up to 25 percent by 2025," PRCC wrote.
It's a counter proposal to some serious state legislation that would require 75 percent recycled content in PET bottles by 2030.
PRCC and others say 75 percent is unrealistic — they specifically point to "25 percent by 2025" included in the European Union's plastic strategy as a better target.
It's not just PRCC. Both the International Bottled Water Association and the American Beverage Association also said they're OK with legislation requiring 25 percent by 2025 for California.
But back to Albany and my hypothetical scenario. Like California, New York is also a bottle bill state, so they both have high recycling rates and pull in a lot of post-consumer PET material.
I can see state legislators there — or Massachusetts or other bottle bill states, for that matter — saying if the industry is fine with a state law mandating recycled content in PET bottles sold in California, they should be willing to do so in our state. They will argue they share the same goals of priming the pump around recycling.
And the same principal could apply to Congress.
Some in Washington could push recycled content laws, arguing that industry's already agreed in California and noting that some companies have already committed nationally to achieve recycled content in their PET bottles.
Nationally, it's more complicated given much lower PET bottle recycling rates in nonbottle bill states, but it wouldn't take much for that debate to at least be introduced in Congress.
Similarly, for the ACC takeout container fee idea, it seems like a political no-brainer to at least be debated in Washington.
If California and its 40 million people, per ACC's estimate, can generate $100 million from a three-tenths of a cent tax on takeout containers, then the 320 – plus million people in the U.S. are a potential $800 million – a – year source to pay for recycling, composting and waste infrastructure.
In unveiling the proposal quietly to legislators in California, ACC said it recognized that the big commitments it has made around recycling will require resources.
ACC last year endorsed a goal of 100 percent of plastic packaging being recyclable or recoverable by 2030 and 100 percent actually being reused, recycled or recovered by 2040.
Of course, not all states will even want to consider this. California is very different than, say, Texas in what people may accept as a proper tax or government mandate.
Different states will draw the line in very different places. Some people will say it's not a good tax at all, and it's possible that these legislative proposals even in California will stall out.
But — and here's what I think is the big change — with the industry endorsing these ideas, the debate will shift.
Legislators everywhere can point to the industry commitments, and the debate will more easily move away from "are they good or bad ideas," toward "how much of a fee should we have" or "how much recycled content in PET bottles" should we put into law.
Those involved in the California debate told me they see the political landscape shifting around plastic packaging.
I was struck by how in California, the PET bottling industry was pointing to the European Union's plastics rules as the safer, more realistic law.
It's possible that neither of these California bills will make it into law, even though both have strong support. But with industry groups pointing to the once radical EU plastics rules as the safer policy option, recycling markets suffering and legislators pushing, the debate around plastics recycling in the U.S. could be shifting.
Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.