California will have a statewide vote in 2022 on an extensive plan to regulate and put fees on single-use plastics, after election officials July 19 certified that supporters had enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
The plan, known as the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, would put a fee of up to 1 cent on single-use plastic packaging and foodware to fund cleanup and recycling, as well as ban expanded polystyrene foam food containers and take other steps to reduce plastic use.
It's not the first California ballot on plastics. In 2016, voters approved a statewide plastic bag ban by 6 percentage points, in a referendum that saw supporters and industry both spending millions of dollars to sway voters. About 13.5 million voters cast ballots in that referendum.
The American Chemistry Council called it a "massive taxpayer-funded giveaway" and questioned whether it would do enough to build plastics recycling infrastructure.
This new vote in November 2022 comes after several years of intense fights in the state Legislature over plastics laws and, if approved by voters, would bypass those legislative stalemates and create one of the strongest measures in a U.S. state around plastics.
"The manufacturers of disposable plastic products and packaging have been making empty promises for decades, all the while they have hired lobbyists to stop any legislation designed to actually rein in the amount of plastic pollution they generate," said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste. "It's time for the voters to get a say."
The referendum would give state agencies new power to take steps like requiring recycled content and also set targets for reducing single-use plastic thrown away in the state by up to 80 percent by 2030.
Most prominently, it would be a fee of up to 1 cent per item on single-use plastic packaging and foodware in the state.
The fee could be adjusted by state officials based on factors like how much the packaging is recycled and if it uses renewable feedstocks. The money would create a California Plastic Pollution Reduction Fund to support grants and various source reduction, recycling and composting measures.
Additionally, it would fund efforts to boost supplies of recycled materials, clean up pollution and mitigate impacts in low-income communities.
Supporters see it as a "comprehensive solution" to help California cities offset the $420 million a year they spend cleaning up plastic and other litter, and shift some of the costs of waste management from taxpayers to companies.
Alison Waliszewski, policy and outreach manager with the environmental group 5 Gyres, said supporters see the measure beginning to address concerns about health impacts from microplastics and moving beyond viewing it mainly as a litter problem "with cleanups and recycling being the solution."
"California has the opportunity to change that tired narrative by focusing on source reduction and extended producer responsibility in order to impart true change to the entire supply chain of plastic," she said.
The measure also directs state agencies to develop plans to reduce the single-use materials by 25 percent by 2030 and develop better labeling standards for recyclability and sorting.
The ballot plan exempts single-use plastic packaging for medical devices and prescription drugs, as well as infant formula, reusable plastic packaging and some packaging used on farms.
But it would cover a wide range of other packaging, including both consumer-facing packaging and tertiary or transport packaging used to move goods.
Lapis from CAW said it's hard to estimate how much money the plastics fee would raise because the plan gives state agencies flexibility but noted estimates from the state that it could generate "several billion" dollars.
In a July 20 statement, the plastics division of the ACC questioned how that money would be spent.
"This ballot initiative is a massive taxpayer-funded giveaway of billions of dollars to fund a variety of special interest pet projects not even related to where it is most needed --- developing the necessary infrastructure to recover plastic waste," the plastics group said. "Another tax on already struggling small businesses like restaurants and grocery stores will make it even more difficult for them to recover from the lockdowns."
ACC said its members support doing more to boost plastics recycling, including with extended producer responsibility systems aimed at all material types, and it said that plastics play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gases by lightweighting vehicles, reducing food waste and cutting energy use in buildings.
The coalition of environmental groups that announced that the referendum passed official hurdles to be on the ballot pointed to a poll that said seven in 10 California voters would support the measure.
It said it collected more than 900,000 signatures. Supporters had initially wanted to put the measure on the 2020 ballot but signature-gathering efforts were delayed by the pandemic.