California environmental regulators have released preliminary rules that outline how plastics packaging could fare as the state implements its new extended producer responsibility and green marketing legislation.
CalRecycle, the agency that will implement both laws, released the first draft of regulations and analysis in late December 2023 outlining what types of plastics and other packaging will meet the stricter definitions of recyclability that the two laws will use.
The agency said 37 of 98 categories of plastic, paper, metals and other packaging meet those definitions, including many types of rigid containers made from PET, high density polyethylene and polypropylene.
But the draft suggests many types of flexible plastic packaging may not meet the standards set by the two laws, potentially limiting marketing claims and the use of the "chasing arrows" recyclability symbol as the regulations are fully developed.
The two laws — Senate Bill 54 creating an extended producer responsibility program and Senate Bill 343 on green marketing — require that packaging must be recycled in communities with at least 60 percent of the state's population. They also require that processing plants covering 60 percent of the state must be able to sort the packaging into defined streams of recyclables.
A CalRecycle report to the state Legislature on implementing SB-54 said end markets are also important, noting that to be considered recyclable, materials must generally "have established and robust recyclable material markets, meaning that processors have a buyer for the recycled-content feedstock they produce."
SB-343 could potentially impact the use of the resin identification code on plastic packaging, according to a Jan. 2 analysis from the law firm Steptoe LLP, because the law considers the use of the RIC with chasing arrows to be a recyclability claim. But Steptoe also said that California's law could conflict with laws in other states requiring the use of a code with chasing arrows and with the current version of the Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides, which impose a "somewhat lower standard" for recyclability claims.
FTC, however, is currently rewriting its Green Guides and faces pressure from some states and the Environmental Protection Agency to limit use of chasing arrows with the resin code or require further labeling.
Several industry executives, environmental groups and consultants said on social media that they were still digesting the details. CalRecycle plans a Feb. 13 public hearing on SB-343 and is taking formal written comments until Feb. 29.
Phil Rozenski, vice president of government and public affairs at packaging maker Novolex Holdings Inc., called the documents released by California a "must-read" for understanding the future of recycling infrastructure and recyclability claims in the state.
One environmental group said it would be focused on implementing what it considers the strongest plastics pollution law in the world.
"We at Ocean Conservancy are looking forward to diving in and working with California leaders to make the strongest #PlasticPollution reduction law in the world a success," said Anja Brandon, associate director of U.S. plastics policy for the group, in comments on LinkedIn.
Both laws have more deadlines for additional rules and implementation reports in 2024 and 2025.
CalRecycle said packaging makes up more than 50 percent by volume of what residents throw away.
SB-54 requires that an industry-run organization develop programs by 2032 to cut single-use plastics packaging and foodware 25 percent, recycle 65 percent of plastic packaging and foodware, and ensure that 100 percent of packaging and plastic foodware is recyclable or compostable.
"California is setting clear standards to cut waste and recycle single-use products to lower pollution, while growing innovative companies and new jobs," said CalRecycle Director Rachel Machi Wagoner.
Ocean Conservancy estimates that SB-54 will eliminate 23 million tons of single-use plastics in the next decade.