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California already has placed curbs on plastic items such as straws and bags — and this week legislation was introduced to phase out single-use plastic food containers and other packaging that isn’t recyclable or compostable.
The proposed measure also would apply to polystyrene foam containers used for takeout meals, as well as plastic detergent bottles. Assembly Bill 1080, introduced Thursday, would phase out the single-use plastics by 2030 and follows concerns about plastic debris going in oceans and on beaches.
If the legislation becomes law, some experts believe it could lead to other states taking similar steps. In 2014 California became the first state with a single-use plastic bag ban, they noted, which led to at least four other states introducing similar measures.
“What we do in California tends to spread across the country,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit environmental group. “If manufacturers have to comply with this rule in California, they probably are going to do this across the country.”
If passed, Murray said the legislation would be a “win” for companies making or marketing two common recycled plastic materials: polyethylene terephthalate (or PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). PET is commonly used for plastic bottles that contain water or soda, while HDPE is used in milk jugs, shampoo bottles, household cleaning bottles and in some trash bags and cereal liners.
“For some plastic manufacturers who have invested in recycling and closed-loop recycling, this is going to be a boon,” Murray said. “The losers are going to be polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride and polypropylene, because those are the ones that aren’t being recycled.”
Proponents of the legislation say it could help reduce the problem of plastic ending up along beaches and in oceans and rivers. The issue has been highlighted by reports of whales and other marine life found with plastic items in their stomachs.
“We have to stop treating our oceans and planet like a dumpster,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who authored AB 1080. “Any fifth-grader can tell you that our addiction to single-use plastics is killing our ecosystems.” She added, “We have technology and innovation to improve how we reduce and recycle the plastic packaging and products in our state. Now we have to find the political will to do so.”
At the same time, backers of the legislation argue that discarded plastics has become a bigger concern in the past year since China started turning away plastic waste beginning in 2018.
Gonzalez teamed up with state Sen. Bill Allen, D-Santa Monica, who in December introduced Senate Bill 54 in an attempt to reduce the amount of single-use plastic waste that ends up polluting waterways and other places.
According to Allen, the plastic waste often breaks down into toxic chemicals, including some considered cancer-causing. Plastic can take hundreds of years to biodegrade in the ocean, according to research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“At the Plastics Industry Association, we believe uncollected plastics do not belong in our oceans or waterways,” said Scott DeFife, vice president of governmental affairs for PIA, a D.C.-based trade association. “We share the goal of increased recovery in order for plastics to be used at their highest and best potential.”
The American Chemistry Council, which represents leading makers of plastic resins, last May set a goal of 100 percent of plastic packaging being recycled, reused or recovered by 2040. ACC also advocates 100 percent of plastic packaging be recyclable or recoverable by 2030.
In 2014, California passed legislation to curb the use of single-use plastic bags at grocery stores. It mandated that retailers charge consumers for reusable plastic bags or paper bags.
Last year the Golden State became the first in the nation to restrict the use of plastic straws in restaurants with the passage of Assembly Bill 1884. The state also passed Senate Bill 1335, legislation reducing the use of non-recyclable takeout food containers.
“Last year we worked closely with Sen. Allen on his SB 1335, a bill that we ultimately supported which created new requirements that food-service packaging used at state facilities be recyclable or compostable,” said Tim Shestek, senior director of state affairs for ACC. “We’d welcome the opportunity to work with Sen. Allen and all stakeholders on efforts to recycle and recover more plastic material so that it doesn’t become waste or ocean litter.”
However, some contend the state should stay out of the business of restricting plastics, whether straws or packaging. They also claim a small percentage of plastics in the ocean are coming from the United States.
“It won’t change anything, and nobody will see a difference,” said Kerry Jackson, a fellow at the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think tank based in San Francisco. “This is a freedom issue as well. [Companies] should be able to decide what they’re going to give to customers, and customers should be able to decide what they want to get.”