California's legislature has adopted what may become the world's toughest plastic bottle recycled content law, exceeding the European Union's standards, with bottles sold in the state required to have 50 percent recycled plastic by 2030.
But to win passage of the new law — which ramps up with 10 percent recycled content in 2021 and 25 percent in 2025 — legislators included what some described as potentially significant "off ramps" for companies to seek waivers that could limit the law's impact.
Lawmakers passed the measure Sept. 14 by wide margins on the last day of their session in Sacramento this year after the late changes softened opposition from groups like the American Beverage Association. ABA includes soft drink giants Coca Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.
The bill must be signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom by Oct. 13, which some observers said is likely.
Alex Delnik, president of Verdeco Recycling Inc., a California-based maker of recycled PET and a member of a coalition of local plastics recycling firms pushing for the law, said it's potentially a very significant step forward because it mandates recycled content at levels higher than anywhere else in the world.
But he also said it remains to be seen if the state government, through the agency CalRecycle, will give out waivers easily or be stringent and give them only for true "force majeure"-style emergencies.
"I was a bit disappointed that in order to get the bill passed, the authors needed to give up some teeth," Delnik said. "The biggest unknown is how the waiver process will work."
Early versions of the law called for mandating 75 percent recycled content in plastic bottles but that was lowered after complaints from the beverage and bottle making industries that that level was unrealistic.
A spokesman for beverage association confirmed that the group removed its opposition "due to changes that made the bill, the goals of which we always supported, realistically attainable."
"We feel strongly that companies and government should work together on practical, effective ways to increase recycling collection and processing in California's unique marketplace," said ABA spokesman William Dermody. "We appreciate the authors of this bill working with beverage companies and recycling advocates on legislation that will create a comprehensive system to recycle, reclaim and reuse PET in California."
If it is signed into law, Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, wrote on Twitter Sept. 14 that the law would mandate the highest level of recycled content plastic bottles in the world.
"CA leads [with] a landmark proposal to address our plastic waste crisis," Ting wrote. "My bill, #AB792, is 1st-in-the-nation to mandate all plastic [container deposit] bottles contain 50% recycled material by 2030 — the highest standards in the world, surpassing even those in the EU."
In May, the European Commission adopted a requirement for 25 percent recycled content in PET bottles by 2025 and 30 percent by 2030.
Delnik said California's bill could lead other states with their own bottle bills to pass similar laws, or it could become a de facto national standard, if companies do not want to make separate bottles for California and other states. He said similar laws spreading to other states is a big concern for beverage makers.
"They will worry that other bottle bill states will see it as a success and push to have a similar law in those states," he said. But Delnik and other plastic recycling companies say their business is in crisis because of low virgin resin pricing, and a group of them have been pushing similar legislation in the state for several years.
The bill covers all plastic containers in the state's deposit system.
One of the chief concerns expressed by the beverage and PET bottle making industries in the debate has been whether enough recycled PET would be available to handle legal mandates for recycled content.
A few companies are currently using the kind of levels the law envisions — and some have said they will do more. Coca-Cola has publicly committed to hitting 50 percent by 2030 and Danone has pledged that its Evian brand water bottles will have 100 percent recycled PET by 2025. But industry officials worried that requiring all companies to do so could strain the system.
Plastic Recycling Corp. of California, which is an organization made up of PET bottle makers and beverage companies to support recycling in the state, told lawmakers in a late June letter it could support 10 percent by 2021 and 25 percent by 2025, but said 75 percent could have caused "market havoc, supply challenges and price spikes."
Beverage industry lobbyists had pushed California to adopt something similar to the EU standards. The EU nations, however, have a PET bottle recycling rate of 58 percent, compared to 29 percent in the U.S., potentially creating supply problems in the U.S. unless rates increase.
Nestle Waters North America applauded passage, calling it an "ambitious and workable" law and noted that it includes "pragmatic considerations to prevent beverage manufacturers from being unfairly penalized if their good faith efforts to comply are not successful due to factors outside their control."
It said CalRecycle can waive the law based on changing market conditions, lack of availability of food-grade recycled plastic or lack of recycling or processing infrastructure.
While California lawmakers passed this bill, they decided Sept. 14 to postpone debate on a much larger plastic waste bill that would have required 75 percent recycled content in all single-use packaging. That legislation will return in January.