The direction of plastics waste policy in California could get a lot clearer by the end of June, with key state legislators unveiling a new plan June 16 that could be a final chance for the plastics industry to avoid a ballot measure it vehemently opposes.
State Sen. Ben Allen introduced a new version of his long-standing plastics bill, known as SB-54, that calls for cuts in single-use plastics, an extended producer responsibility program and for industry to pay a $500 million annual fee to mitigate the environmental impacts of plastic.
His new plan is basically part of a larger carrot and stick approach.
If legislators pass it by June 30, supporters of a plastics referendum on the November ballot — which would put a 1-cent tax on single-use plastics and take other actions — may be persuaded to withdraw their measure.
But much remains in flux, according to both industry and environmental groups, with negotiations continuing.
It's not clear if Allen's new plan can pass, with environmental groups also seemingly divided on it. But some plastics industry groups want the legislation to succeed, even if they don't like all of it, because they see it as a better alternative than the referendum before voters in November.
"We continue to work around the clock with Sen. Allen and other stakeholders to advance a version of SB-54 that accelerates our circularity goals and keeps used plastic out of the environment," said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council.
"While progress on some of our priorities has been addressed, the current version needs more work," Baca said. "We remain good faith negotiators to find a solution that improves recycling and avoids a misguided ballot measure that will drive up costs for Californians' everyday necessities and fail to solve recycling challenges in the state."
Some environmental groups see the combination of Allen's legislation and the upcoming referendum vote as creating the right situation for California to advance policies on plastics waste.
"If [Allen's bill] doesn't pass, we, like many of the other groups we are working with, are all in on the ballot measure," said Anja Brandon, U.S. plastics policy analyst at Ocean Conservancy. "2022 needs to be the year that California leads us out of the plastics pollution crisis through meaningful source reduction that results in less plastic production, fewer plastics on the shelf and less plastic in the ocean."
Allen's legislation calls for a 25 percent reduction in plastic packaging and foodware, measured by unit count, by 2032. As well, it requires that single-use packaging and foodware, of all material types, be recyclable or compostable by 2032, and it targets a 65 percent recycling rate.
It includes provisions for an extended producer responsibility program to cover all materials, not just plastics.
The bill basically lays some plastics-specific source reduction targets on top of a producer responsibility program that would cover all packaging materials, with the exception of those covered by other state programs such as the California bottle bill, Brandon said.
Her group is working in coalition with Oceana, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Nature Conservancy.
She also pointed to the provision requiring a $500 million annual payment from an industry producer responsibility organization, set up by the EPR provision, into a California Plastic Pollution Mitigation Fund that would be created by the bill. The state Legislature would then spend that money in programs "mitigating the environmental impacts of plastic," the bill said.
Similarly to that revenue-raising measure, the referendum would also raise money for plastics pollution reduction programs in the state.
Some estimates said the 1-cent fee on single-use plastics in the referendum could raise several billion dollars a year.
Much remains up in the air in the debate.
One flashpoint is over whether to ban expanded polystyrene food containers.
Allen's bill does not ban them, preferring to set recycling targets, but the ballot measure would ban EPS containers.
The fate of EPS packaging could have a high profile in whether the referendum is dropped.
The three Californians who officially filed the referendums — all active in waste management or environmental policy circles — wrote a letter to Allen in early June suggesting that they wanted to see tougher measures around EPS packaging before they would withdraw their ballot measure.
Another coalition of environmental groups has bigger concerns with the new legislation from Allen, who has shepherded plastics bills through California's Legislature for several years and in the past has nearly succeeded in passing them.
That second environmental coalition, which includes Beyond Plastics, Californians Against Waste and the Natural Resources Defense Council, released a June 14 letter to Allen outlining a number of concerns.
They said the EPR program should not give too much authority to packaging industry groups to draft its rules, should set higher source reduction targets and should be clear that chemical recycling technologies should not be considered recycling plants.