California Passes Sweeping New Plastic Waste Law

The legislation requires that all packaging in the state must be recyclable or compostable within ten years

Trash in a river is getting picked up by two workers
Trash collects on Ballona Creek in California after rainfall. Education Images/Citizens of the Planet/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

California’s Governor Gavin Newsom signed new legislation last week aimed at reducing plastic waste in the state. The law requires all plastic packaging to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. 

Additionally, $5 billion will be raised from the plastic industry over ten years to mitigate the effects of plastic pollution on the environment and human health, mainly in low income communities, according to the New York Times

“Our kids deserve a future free of plastic waste and all its dangerous impacts, everything from clogging our oceans to killing animals—contaminating the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. No more. California won’t tolerate plastic waste that’s filling our waterways and making it harder to breathe," Newsom says in a statement. "We’re holding polluters responsible and cutting plastics at the source.” 

Only about five to six percent of plastic waste generated in the U.S. gets recycled, while 85 percent ends up in landfills, per a report generated earlier this year by the environmental groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup. 

Recycling plastic is more difficult than products like glass, paper or aluminum. Much of it cannot be recycled at all, and what can, gets degraded during the process. A piece of plastic can only be recycled two to three times before it can no longer be used, writes Lilly Sedaghat for National Geographic. And recycling is costly—producing a new piece of plastic is usually less expensive

Yet plastic production is increasing. In 2018, the U.S. produced 35.7 million tons of plastic, up from about 25.5 in 2000. 

“Remember that when you’re making plastic, there’s the greenhouse gas emissions, but these facilities also emit massive amounts of air toxins and particulates,” Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and now president of Beyond Plastics, tells CNN’s Rachel Ramirez and Taylor Romine. “It’s really a health threat.”

The law was signed ahead of a November vote on a bill that would have pushed the companies to comply two years earlier, per the New York Times’ Soumya Karlamangla. 

Instead, the new legislation was a compromise between environmentalists and the plastic industry. CNN reports that Matt Seaholm, Plastics Industry Association president and CEO, says in a statement he was "disappointed" by the bill. 

Some environmentalists say the bill doesn’t go far enough because it relies on flawed plastic recycling policies, reports Kathleen Ronayne of the Associated Press, but many say this is still a monumental step toward reducing plastic waste. 

“We did something that the world thought was impossible,” Alexis Jackson, ocean policy and plastics lead at the Nature Conservancy tells the Times. “There is no such thing as a perfect policy, but I think this bill still goes farther than any plastics policy we’ve seen.”

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