Updated Sept. 10
California lawmakers, in a bid to win votes, have softened their controversial legislation setting tough requirements for recycling plastic packaging.
But even with the changes, the legislation would still be the strictest in the U.S. and set up substantial mandates over time for recycling things like plastic foodservice products.
The amendments unveiled late Sept. 6 walked something of a tightrope. They were enough to satisfy the American Chemistry Council and move its official position from opposition to neutrality, although the industry's other large national trade group, the Plastics Industry Association, said it remain opposed.
While there's a split within the industry, the changes did not significantly weaken support from Californians Against Waste, one of the state's leading environmental groups on recycling issues.
"We still think it's a strong bill," said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Sacramento-based CAW. "They are all changes to bring industry on board. These are not changes we would have proposed, but we live in a democracy."
Specifically, the bill keeps its original legal mandate of a 75 percent recycling rate by 2030.
But it includes new language calling for "material neutral" treatment of single-use packaging, a change pushed by ACC and others in industry in late negotiations.
As well, it sets up an independent advisory panel of stakeholders to consult with the state agency CalRecycle, which must write implementing rules by 2024.
It also allows CalRecycle, at its discretion and in consultation with that advisory board, to lower the mandated recycled rate targets by up to 10 percent.
The new language pushes the start of implementation back to 2026, from 2024, when it requires a recycling rate of 30 percent, rising to 40 percent by 2028 and 75 percent by 2030.
ACC, in a Sept. 9 letter to California lawmakers announcing its change in position, said the Sept. 6 changes switched it from opposing the legislation to being officially neutral.
"We sincerely appreciate the efforts of the authors to work with us to address our primary concerns," wrote Tim Shestek, ACC's Sacramento-based senior director of state affairs. "However, we continue to believe parts of the legislation will be difficult — and perhaps impossible — to achieve without further legislative and regulatory action."
Shestek said the state needs to provide funding to improve recycling infrastructure and should recognize emerging technologies like chemical recycling.
He also wrote that implementing regulations should be flexible and urged lawmakers to "maintain strong oversight" as implementing rules are written.
Not all industry groups think the changes have gone far enough, though.
The Plastics Industry Association said it appreciated the Sept. 6 amendments making the bill material neutral, targeting all packaging and not just plastics, but it continues to oppose it.
"Unfortunately we still feel like the bill has some fundamental flaws that would prevent it from being implemented properly," said Shannon Crawford, director of state government affairs for the group. "We do not believe there is proper infrastructure in place currently to achieve these high recycling rates. Getting to 75 percent by 2030 is a pretty significant jump."
Crawford said the association wants to see more focus on improving the state's recycling systems, and she also said the group feels the legislation would give too much authority to CalRecycle.
Even with the late changes, though, CAW's Lapis said the legislation is the strongest in the United States around plastic waste.
The bill now has a more material-neutral focus, but Lapis said some plastics packaging will find it very hard to meet those requirements and that, ultimately, it will have a strong impact on plastics packaging.
He also said CAW has "a lot of faith" in CalRecycle to write implementing rules.
The bill has passed the California legislature on preliminary votes and has a hard deadline of Sept. 13 for final passage.
Sources said the bill, while bringing some industry groups on board, still may face strong opposition and the situation is fluid. More amendments were introduced Sept. 9.
But the legislative changes may have shaken up the landscape around the bill. A source said the California Retailers Association, SC Johnson and Procter & Gamble Co., like ACC, have moved into a neutral position, from opposition.
As well, Dow Inc. moved from neutral to officially supporting the legislation, because it's now material neutral and "focuses on addressing all manners of waste," the company said in a statement.