California lawmakers passed a bill in the closing days of their session in early September that significantly tightens recyclability claims around plastic packaging, a vote that some see as adding momentum to calls for tougher national rules.
The legislation would limit use of the chasing arrows symbol and give the state agency CalRecycle the power to decide what packaging could — and could not — be labeled as recyclable.
It's that last step that has potentially the most far-reaching implications.
Environmental groups say it will clean up labeling that misleads the public, but industry groups fear it creates strict rules that will hurt plans to grow recycling of products like flexible packaging, films and polypropylene packaging such as yogurt containers.
As well, some see it as adding to momentum for a stronger national approach around recycling labeling, with the Federal Trade Commission announcing this summer it plans to rewrite its Green Guides marketing rules in 2022, the first update in a decade.
"With the Green Guides being rewritten next year, California has jumped the gun on what should be a national approach," said Alison Keane, president and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association. "Packaging and products are not made for California or its recycling system; they are made to sell nationally."
FPA said it's very concerned the California legislation, known as Senate Bill 343, will hurt recycling of flexible materials like plastic films, bags, e-commerce packaging and pouches, including at drop-off locations in stores.
Supporters, however, see the legislation fixing a huge problem: confusing and sometimes misleading recycling labeling that causes people to put too many things into curbside bins that ultimately can't be recycled, lowering recycling rates and costing cities money.
"This is ultimately a truth in advertising bill," said state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, its main author. "It will ensure that it will end consumer confusion about what is recyclable, improve recycling efficiency, reduce contamination and ultimately costs for our ratepayers."
Another key legislative supporter, Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said current rules too easily allow recycling claims that make "a company's brand look green-friendly," even if the packaging can't be effectively recycled.
"We don't want people throwing in plastics that maybe five years from now we'll have technology to recycle," she said in comments on the Assembly floor Sept. 8. "It's dishonest. It's not the interest of consumers or companies to allow it. And it's certainly not in the interest of our goals to reach recycling rates for single-use plastics."
Allen, in comments on the Senate floor shortly before a Senate vote Sept. 9, also said he wanted address concerns that had been raised about the bill's impact on store drop-off programs for plastic bags.
He said the legislation does not shut down voluntary store recycling, and he said he was "committed to leaning in and working with the film sector to increase the amount of film collected and recycled."