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News > Our Environment > What to Know About California's Landmark Plastics Law

What to Know About California's Landmark Plastics Law

The new legislation requires plastics makers to foot the bill for recycling and restricts single-use plastics.
6 Jul 2022
Our Environment
Recycling truck dumping recycling in a warehouse. Two men in yellow and silver jackets stand around
Recycling truck dumping recycling in a warehouse. Two men in yellow and silver jackets stand around

Story by: Soumya Karlamangla

California approved the most sweeping restrictions on plastics in the nation late last week, a move that will most likely reshape the way we shop and recycle over the next decade.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 54 on Thursday, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court limited the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. California's new law, advocates say, provides another route for curbing carbon emissions and trying to sidestep the worst consequences of global warming.

Plastics are made from fossil fuels, and the plastics industry is expected to consume 20 percent of oil produced worldwide by 2050. And, as you may know, less than 10 percent of plastic gets recycled, instead ending up in landfills or the ocean.

“A lot of people don't understand that our plastics crisis is our climate crisis,” Alexis Jackson, ocean policy and plastics lead at the Nature Conservancy, told me. “The beauty of this legislation is that it actually sets a blueprint that other states and nations can follow.”

Newsom signed the bill right at the deadline to avoid a fall ballot initiative that would have had similar requirements. The legislation gives plastics makers an extra two years to comply, among other differences. As has happened before in the State Capitol, the threat of an outside initiative was enough to bring industry groups to the table to negotiate the deal.

Today I'll break down what you need to know about the new law:

What exactly does the law mandate?

The 50-plus-page legislation aims to reduce the amount of plastic created and increase recycling rates in California. Here are some of the key tenets:

  • By 2032, plastic producers must reduce the amount of plastic in packaging by 25 percent. Those products include things like shampoo bottles, food wrappers, takeaway cups and bubble wrap.
  • The reduction can be achieved in multiple ways: reducing package sizing, switching to a different material or making the products reusable.
  • All single-use packaging, including paper and metals, has to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. The law also mandates that California raise its recycling rate for all plastic products to 65 percent by 2032.
  • The law shifts the costs of recycling infrastructure, recycling plants, and collection and sorting facilities to packaging manufacturers and away from taxpayers, who currently foot the bill.
  • As my colleague Winston Choi-Schagrin reported, Maine and Oregon were the first in the country to pass such requirements, known as producer-responsibility laws.
  • Plastics manufacturers must pay $5 billion into a fund over the next 10 years that would mitigate the effects of plastic pollution on the environment and human health, primarily in low-income communities.

What effect is the law expected to have?

Any reduction in plastics creation will reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as the amount of waste ending up in landfills. The Ocean Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit group that helped draft California's law, estimated the legislation would eliminate 23 million tons of plastic in the next 10 years.

“We know that to solve our plastic pollution crisis, we need to make less plastic and reuse more of the plastic we do have,” Anja Brandon, a policy analyst at the Ocean Conservancy, told The Times. “This is the first bill in the country to tackle both issues.”

Plus, because of California's size, the law could have ripple effects.

“Manufacturers don't make packaging for a single state,” Dylan de Thomas, head of the policy team at the Recycling Partnershiptold The Times. “They will make packaging recyclable elsewhere too, and you are going to have a stronger recycling system.”

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