California's plan to put steep recycling requirements on single-use packaging may have stalled in the state Legislature for this year.
But given the state's huge market, and given that the plan's supporters are keen on trying again, the debate is certain to come back. And the effects of whatever lawmakers do are likely to be felt beyond the Golden State.
The plan's backers include influential lawmakers like the majority leader of the state Assembly, who vowed Sept. 14, the day the bill stalled, to bring it up again next year.
While it had substantial industry opposition, it had the support a lot of cities and some in the waste management industry. The final version even had the support of plastics maker Dow Inc.
Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, the bill's lead author in the Senate, said in a Sept. 16 statement that he plans to continue talking with interested groups in the next few months and "remains committed" to moving legislation.
So what were the details of the bill that stalled and what could the state do going forward?
The stalled plan would have required a 75 percent recycling rate for all single-use packaging, not just plastics, sold in the state by 2030. That would have started in 2026 with a 30 percent recycling rate and ramped up.
While that would have been seven years away, the challenge for industry is that much of the plastic packaging in use now would have a hard time with those requirements.
The law would have put a lot of responsibility on brand owners, and they could have potentially faced tough choices, such as should they work to increase the recycling rate of the packaging they use now, or should they switch to something with a higher recycling rate? And how would consumer react?
It's impossible to answer those questions today because the law would have set out a four-year process where the state agency CalRecycle would write detailed rules. Nothing would have happened immediately.
But industry officials said that with the state's huge market — California would be the world's fifth largest economy if it were its own country — whatever the state does could become nationwide rules, in practice, if not in law.
"Some companies have looked at California as your de facto national standard and I would presume that what you ultimately get enacted here, the big product companies are ultimately going to be manufacturing for this standard across the country," said Tim Shestek, the Sacramento, Calif.-based senior director of state affairs for the American Chemistry Council.
"It would be surprising to me that you would have a just a California clamshell or flexible packaging that's just for California and a different one for the rest of the country," he said.
Other industry lobbyists, like Shannon Crawford, director of state government affairs with the Plastics Industry Association, predicted that bill would have had "a significant impact, I think that's pretty safe to say, but this is an instance where the devil is in the details."