In its first vote on a massive new plastics and packaging recycling bill, a California legislative committee on June 28 approved it by a sizable bipartisan majority, clearing a hurdle for it potentially to pass the full legislature by a tight deadline later this week.
But the plan also drew concerns from lawmakers in the short hearing over how it would treat chemical recycling facilities that would want to locate in the state.
At least eight of the 11 lawmakers on the Assembly Natural Resources Committee voted for the bill after a hearing, sending it to another committee hearing June 29 and potentially floor votes in the Assembly and Senate after that.
The Legislature faces a deadline of June 30 to approve the bill. That's the last date that proponents of a plastics ballot measure on the November ballot can withdraw their plan.
That ballot initiative would ask voters to put a 1-cent fee on single-use plastics packaging, potentially raising several billion dollars a year.
But the uncertainty of that vote, and a desire by many to avoid an expensive, statewide outreach campaign, prompted an unusual coalition of lawmakers, environmental groups and industries to try to hammer out an acceptable legislative alternative.
The primary author of the legislation, state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, told the hearing that the inflexibility of a ballot initiative could have unintended consequences.
"A state law is easier to refine than a ballot measure that's passed by the voters," Allen said.
Allen first introduced similar legislation in 2018, and it almost passed the legislature on several occasions since, before failing.
But the referendum created a new political calculus for the proposal, which would be the most comprehensive plastics legislation in the U.S.
"The uncertainty and expense of ballot campaigns motivated our work," said Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist for Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and other environmental groups. "Our guiding strategy this year has been to create the conditions for the success of either the bill or the ballot measure."
The legislation would require companies to reduce the amount of single-use plastics packaging by 25 percent by 2032 and create a multimaterial producer responsibility system that requires companies to meet recycling targets.
To address concerns from some groups, including waste haulers and companies that collect municipal recycling, Allen said lawmakers would come back with additional clarifying legislation this summer.
The bill also requires companies in the producer responsibility system to pay $500 million a year for 10 years into an environmental cleanup and mitigation fund.
But one lawmaker at the hearing wondered if that would put the state in the position of taking money but allowing pollution from chemical recycling plants in places already harmed by industrial pollution.
"There's a lot of fear from environmental justice communities like mine that we might end up with a chemical recycling plant in our community, and will that make us sicker," said Assembly member Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens.
Garcia said she was asking herself "whether or not I've perpetuated the idea that we're going to take money in exchange for polluting communities like mine and making us sicker and shortening our lives at the end of the day."
The chair of the committee, Luz Rivas, D-Arleta, said she shared Garcia's concerns and had pushed for a stronger bill in talks with Allen and others over the last week. But Rivas now supports the bill.
"It's no secret that a week ago I was not in this position, I didn't think this hearing would happen," Rivas said. "And it's because, like Ms. Garcia mentioned, I also represent an environmental justice community and I felt that the bill needed to be strengthened because I wouldn't have allowed chemical recycling in a bill to move forward."
But she said discussion with many stakeholders has produced a workable agreement.
"Today I'm very confident that the bill we are considering is the best policy for California in this area," she said.
None of the major plastics industry groups representing the virgin resin industry made statements at the hearing, while a lobbyist for the Association of Plastic Recyclers and The Recycling Partnership said those two organizations supported the legislation.
Previously the American Chemistry Council said it wanted to continue negotiating on the legislation and preferred it to a November ballot.
And while some environmental groups testified in support of the legislation, others were more lukewarm.
The Environmental Working Group said it was moving from opposition to neutral on the legislation and looked forward to clarifying amendments later this summer.
And Californians Against Waste noted it had "serious concerns" with previous versions but was moving to support it based on recent changes.
Rivas said she hoped the changes, including those made in June, would win over the groups supporting the ballot initiative, including three environmental and waste management officials who have long been active in state politics and whose official signatures must be withdrawn to cancel the referendum.
They have previously noted concerns over several provisions, including wanting the legislation to include a ban on expanded polystyrene packaging, as the referendum would do. Instead, the bill puts recycling requirements on EPS.
In her comments closing the hearing, Rivas urged the ballot campaigners to support the plan and said talks continue ahead of the June 30 deadline to withdraw the referendum.
"We continue to work with the ballot signatories and have had positive conversations with them," Rivas said. "I believe that what we're presenting today, what we want to pass into law, is a measure I feel confident in. And I hope that the ballot signatories will trust us in making sure that this is it."