On the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court clipped the national government's ability to regulate climate change, the state of California took a big step in the opposite direction, with a major new law on plastics recycling and pollution.
It feels like whiplash. Washington, D.C., becomes more hamstrung on addressing environmental challenges, but in Sacramento, they're pushing in the opposite direction.
The state Legislature on June 30 adopted what is the toughest U.S. plastics law so far. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law the same day. It requires plastics and other kinds of single-use packaging to have a 65 percent recycling rate by 2032, and it puts in place an extended producer responsibility system to have companies fund recycling improvements.
I realize the Supreme Court decision and Sacramento's vote is not an apples-to-apples comparison. But to me it's another illustration of how states will have to be the driving force around plastics policy for the foreseeable future.
California joins a small group — Maine, Oregon and Colorado — in passing EPR laws for packaging. It's likely more will follow.
But the Golden State, no surprise, wants to go a few steps farther than others. Its plan requires companies to pay $500 million a year for 10 years into a pollution mitigation fund.
And it sets up targets for reducing single-use plastics packaging by 25 percent, by item count, by 2032, with some requirements for absolute reductions and not switching to other materials.
It's a huge and complex law, and its supporters acknowledge there are a lot of blanks that still need to be filled in, as the law phases in.
The law includes some material-specific provisions, like detailed recycling rate requirements for expanded polystyrene foodservice ware. EPS foodservice ware has to meet a 25 percent recycling rate by 2025 to be sold in the state, 30 percent by 2028, 50 percent by 2030 and 65 percent by 2032. By comparison, other plastics packaging covered by the EPR program needs a 30 percent recycling rate by 2028, 40 percent by 2030 and 65 percent by 2032, to be sold in California.
There are national implications for what California's doing, not least the size of the state's market. With 40 million people and an economy that would be the fifth-largest in the world if it were its own country, it has some market power.
California's law also gives state government considerable power.
Industry has to form a PRO, or producer responsibility organization, by 2024, to run the EPR system. But CalRecycle can revoke the PRO if it thinks requirements are not being met or it can impose additional targets.
The plastics industry has been in the detailed negotiations, and reaction of different sectors has varied from grudging acceptance to seeing potential to drive change.
Supporters of the law held a trump card that forced compromises. Industry groups said a referendum on the November ballot would have been even tougher, putting a 1-cent tax on single-use plastics and banning EPS, among other measures.
But both sides would have faced an expensive campaign fight over the summer, and it's not clear who would have won.
California voters passed a statewide referendum banning plastic bags in 2016, so there's that precedent. But with inflation and gas prices, would voters have reacted differently in 2022?
Ballot organizers agreed to drop their referendum if this new mega-EPR plan became law, which it now has.
From a political standpoint, I don't think the industry had any good cards to play. The law had broad support, including from California cities and counties facing rising recycling and waste costs.
The paper industry was able to argue for some carve-outs from the EPR legislation for materials with a 65 percent recycling rate, which it got.
The problem for plastics packaging is it's nowhere close to that, so it can't mount any kind of counteroffensive to get its own carve-outs.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the overall plastics packaging recycling rate is about 13 percent. For materials polystyrene packaging, it's 3-4 percent, and for polypropylene about 3 percent.
People who've been around the industry a long time have seen plastics recycling basically stagnate over the last 20 years.
Clearly there are environmental benefits to plastics packaging, but by and large recycling isn't one of them. I think what California is saying is that society needs to be a lot more judicious in how we use packaging, plastics or otherwise. Plastics is the worst performer on recycling and there are significant pollution concerns, so it gets most of the attention.
There'll be a lot more to write and say about California's law, but it could be a watershed moment for U.S. plastics policy.
Steve Toloken is Plastics News' Washington-based assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.