California remains a bellwether on plastics policy, with Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision Sept. 24 to sign an ambitious recycled content law for plastic bottles.
The law sets what could become the world's toughest mandate for recycled content, beginning at 15 percent in 2022 and rising to 50 percent by 2030. The European Union, by contrast, tops out at 30 percent recycled content.
California's size — one of every eight Americans lives there and it has an economy larger than that of France — gives it a lot of market power. For some companies, the Golden State's new recycled content law could become a de facto national standard.
But supporters of the new law, like Alex Delnik, president of South Gate, Calif.-based PET reclaimer Verdeco Recycling Inc., see it as only a first step.
He frames it as part of tackling climate change. He and other PET recycling companies in California have worked for several years in the statehouse to push this legislation, including hiring their own lobbyist.
"There is much more that we need and can do to meet ambitious goals of reducing pollution and the carbon footprint of plastics production and use," Delnik said.
Increasingly, policymakers are seeing recycling the same way, as part of tackling climate change.
In Gov. Newsom's signing statement, for example, he lists the law, known as Assembly Bill 793, first among a series of new climate measures he signed. Recycling is part of efforts to move California away from fossil fuels, he argued.
(Newsom, of course, made headlines recently for a bigger plan to move away from fossil fuels by banning gas-powered cars in the state by 2035. But back to plastics.)
Another interesting element of AB-793 is its near unanimous approval. Contrast that with the two-year, knockdown fight in the California Legislature over a broader plastics packaging bill, Senate Bill 54, which ended in a painful stalemate in August.
But for the recycled content law, it was quite different.
The California Assembly vote was 65-0, with 14 lawmakers not recording a vote, and the state Senate voted 39-0, with one legislator not voting.
To me, those vote margins point to national implications. Other states or the federal government could now piggyback on California's law because, basically, the beverage industry is on board.
Many of those beverage companies have already made similar public commitments around recycled content, so it's hard for them to argue against a law in California or anywhere that essentially codifies what they've already said they're going to do voluntarily.
And that's going to drive home the need to increase recycling rates.
Which brings me back to the next steps Delnik talked about. Since he and other recyclers in California spent several years pushing this legislatively, I was curious what he sees for the future.
One target for the industry, he says, should be expanding recycled content to other plastic packaging beyond bottles.
The second, he said, is boosting recycling rates: It's "critical to significantly increase collection rates for post-consumer plastics."
"Simply 'wishing' to increase this rate or 'calling' for the increase will not do it," he said. "Specific steps and measures must be introduced and implemented."
For PET bottles, Delnik believes that means deposit programs. He calls them "the only viable and proven path forward."
"Without higher PET collection rates, achieving ambitious sustainability goals committed to by leading consumer brands will be a tall task," he said.
I think we could see California as the first legislative step toward much higher recycled content mandates written in law.
Supporters say a government push is needed to overcome the economic challenges that low-cost virgin resin poses for recycling, and ultimately for trying to make the industry more circular. On the other hand, I've also heard others caution that since we don't have a lot of experience with large-scale plastic recycled content laws in the United States, such laws could wind up shifting end markets within specific resins as much as they create new markets.
No matter what, I wouldn't be surprised if California's new AB-793 law is the first of many, and ultimately that has as much or more impact than the bans on plastic bags, EPS foam or other products that get a lot of headlines.
Toloken is a Plastics News assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.