Plastic is Forever

You’ve probably seen the photos of bird corpses full of plastic, or of the Great Pacific garbage patch, a floating gyre of plastic debris twice the size of Texas. They’re stark images that can stir people to take action when it comes to recycling or reusing.

But a bold bill in the California Legislature would take a different tack, instead aiming to reduce single-use packaging on the front end. The California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act would cut such packaging by 75 percent by 2030.

State Sen. Ben Allen, D-Los Angeles, is chair of the California Senate Environmental Quality Committee and an author of SB 54. “This legislation provides a comprehensive plan to transition manufacturers and consumers toward more sustainable packaging and products,” he said in a press release. Part of his goal: reducing the $420 million local governments spend annually to clean up plastics from waterways, parks and beaches, by starting at the source.

SB 54 and AB 1080 would give CalRecycle broad discretion to implement the legislation, including identifying the top 10 most littered pieces of plastic in California by 2023.

There’s been increasing pressure to curb plastics at the source, rather than relying on recycling, since China’s “National Sword” policy was implemented in 2017. Prior to that, China accepted, sorted, cleaned, shredded and manufactured the bulk of U.S. recyclables. But now, imports of foreign recyclables have been restricted in China, leaving many California waste managers at an impasse.

“China was an easy market to sell to,” says Jeff Lindenthal, director of communications and sustainability at Monterey Regional Waste Management District. “They’ve completely revised the contamination threshold they’ll accept – it went from 5 percent to 0.5 percent.”

Recyclables from MRWMD are increasingly shipped to domestic manufacturers in Georgia, Iowa and Alabama, where they are “downcycled” into materials that cannot be further recycled, such as carpeting and paint cans.

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