California legislators voted Sept. 1 to try to limit exports of plastic scrap collected for recycling, a move supporters say is needed to give a more honest picture of the state's waste and to limit pollution in other countries.
It's believed to be the first time a state has tried to directly control its own plastic waste exports.
The vote comes about two months after lawmakers in Sacramento passed a similar but nonbinding resolution urging Washington and President Joe Biden to join the Basel Convention and its global treaty limiting trade in plastic scrap.
The Sept. 1 vote to pass Assembly Bill 881 aims to limit exports of lower-value mixed plastic waste but still allow exports of scrap polyethylene, PET and polypropylene since those materials are seen as having stronger markets and likely to be actually recycled.
"Sending our plastic waste to another country to become someone else's problem is dangerous and only causes more harm to the planet," said lead author Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, in a statement. "AB-881 ensures we're being honest and transparent about our commitment to reduce plastic waste in California and meet our recycling goals."
The bill does not explicitly ban exports of the lower-value mixed scrap, but it prevents California cities from using those exports when calculating plastic recycling rates to meet state targets.
That removes an incentive for cities to export materials that have weak domestic markets.
A legislative analysis filed with the bill said it is not clear how much of those materials are actually recycled in the countries they are exported to and how much are burned, landfilled or leak into the environment.
Nick Lapis, director of advocacy at the environmental group Californians Against Waste, said AB 881 would also address public skepticism about recycling when people find out that some of what they put into blue curbside bins is not recycled.
"It has caused so many consumers to lose faith in recycling as a whole and it is totally unfair to companies that use truly recyclable materials," he said.
He said the bill targets exports of bales of mixed scrap with the resin identification codes 3-7: "What has been happening with 3-7s being shipped overseas without any real markets has been a disaster."
The AB-881 vote comes after the state Legislature gave final passage to an advisory resolution in July that asked Washington to ratify the Basel Convention, a U.N. treaty that dates from the 1980s and was updated in 2019 to include limits on plastic scrap trade.
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that has not ratified and formally joined the Basel treaty, according to a news release from Assembly Member Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, author of the resolution.
Both AB-881 and the Basel resolutions passed both chambers with wide support. AB-881 goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk for his signature, which supporters said they expect.
One of the sponsors of AB-881 said during a Senate floor debate in late August that it did not have formal opposition.
The state's plastic waste exports have also attracted attention from environmental groups.
A May 18 letter from more than 10 groups to state officials said the U.S. is the world's largest exporter of plastic waste to countries outside the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and it said that California accounted for 27 percent of U.S. exports.
"More than any other state, California's recycling facilities continue to accept plastic waste that is exported to developing countries that have weak wage and age labor standards and few environmental protections," the letter said. It was signed by Greenpeace, the Surfrider Foundation, Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity and others.