If the mountain of bills is any indication, lawmakers are increasingly prepared to crack down on plastic waste that litter roadsides, dumps on beaches and in oceans, is digested by fish and ends up in our own womb.

In Sacramento, at least a dozen bills are tackling plastic pollution from different angles, including reducing the amount of single-use plastics and filling returnable beverage bottles. And in Washington, DC, a sweeping federal proposal co-authored by Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would place much of the responsibility for reducing and recycling plastics on the companies that make and use end-user plastics. unique.

But there are obstacles, especially opposition from business interests and a lack of consensus among lawmakers.

“Over the past few years we’ve made a breakthrough in terms of public awareness, but I don’t think we have the political will yet,” said Daniel Coffee of UCLA, a public policy researcher whose specialties include plastic pollution.

Coffee compared the magnitude of the Lowenthal bill – the “Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act” – to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, but said it went beyond what Congress was. likely to approve this year. Some of the state proposals, which are more progressive, are seen as more likely to become law.

“It’s no longer a question of whether California will do something, but when and how it will happen,” said Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, a head of state on the issue who resubmitted a key proposal to reduce plastic pollution after has not had it approved each of the past two years.

Although the solutions are the source of disputes, the magnitude of the problem cannot be denied.

Some 15 million tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year and the amount is set to triple by 2040, according to the United Nations. The United States leads the world in plastic waste, producing 42 million metric tonnes in 2016 – five times what it produced just six years earlier – according to the newspaper Scientific progress.

More and more, this waste is ending up in landfills – and in the ocean – as overseas recyclable markets dry up. Less than 15% of California’s single-use plastics (and just 8% nationwide) are now recycled, as environmentalists call for stricter laws and polls show widespread public concern.

California has taken several important but modest steps to tackle waste. In 2016, voters ratified a ban on single-use plastic take-out bags, and two years later, lawmakers approved restrictions on single-use plastic straws. Last year, California became the first state to pass a law requiring plastic bottles to be made with at least 15% recycled content, a standard that will be raised to 50% by 2030.

Additionally, a handful of coastal towns – including Long Beach and Santa Monica – have approved restrictions on single-use plastic utensils and containers.

But environmentalists say these measures only scratch the surface of the problem.

“Californians, policymakers and businesses all know we can and must do better,” said Ashley Blacow of environmental group Oceana. “We know this is possible because we see other countries taking meaningful action, and alternative business practices and products are available from us.”

Industry pushback

The federal bill, introduced by Lowenthal and Senator Jeff Merkley, D-OR, would phase out many of the most common single-use plastics, including carry bags, foam containers for food and drink, agitators plastic and plastic utensils. And that would require a nationwide minimum recycled content for plastic beverage containers.

Among many other provisions, it would also require producers of packaging, containers and catering products to “design, manage and finance programs for the collection and treatment of product waste”, according to one summary of the invoice.

“The European Union has been ahead of us in solving the problem, but that would go beyond anything it has done,” Coffee said.

Days after the bill was introduced on March 25, the Plastics Industry Association launched a scathing attack on the proposal.

“This bill is a direct threat to the nearly one million men and women who work in the domestic plastics industry,” business group chairman Tony Radoszewski said in a press release. “In addition, this misguided legislation could have the unintended consequence of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Similar to President Biden’s response to criticism of his green energy initiatives, Lowenthal responded that the bill would simply move jobs and dollars to more environmentally friendly industries.

“Despite claims from the plastics industry, our bill will create jobs through massive investments in infrastructure, spur more sustainable products to enter the market and create a true national market for recycled materials,” he said. said Lowenthal.

Coffee has recognized that single-use substitutes for plastics involve the creation of greenhouse gases, just like any manufactured product. He said the ideal solution were reusable substitutes, such as the already widely used reusable grocery bags. Some consumers also carry their own food utensils and Berkeley recently launched a pilot program in restaurants and cafes that used reusable cup loans.

But a significant part of the problem is unnecessary packaging that could simply be disposed of, according to Claudia Deeg of advocacy group CALPIRG.

“We don’t need to wrap every online order in layers of plastic packaging,” she said.

Environmentalists also complain about the plastics industry’s disproportionate lobbying power, a factor also noted by Coffee.

“The plastics industry – and the fossil fuel industry, of which it is a part – does not hesitate to invest its money to influence policy makers,” he said.

A discarded face mask is left near West Hedding Street in San Jose on April 26, 2020 (Credit: Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)

Lowenthal, meanwhile, acknowledged that if his proposal was not approved in its entirety, some parties might make it law; “If not all in the same bill, then at least by other legislation.”

The state takes the lead

With the future of federal legislation blurry, plastic reduction advocates want to continue building momentum in California.

Perhaps the biggest prize currently listed is Allen’s SB 54, versions of which have been vetted in the Senate and the Assembly over the past two years, but have never made it out of the bureaucratic glove of the Legislature to get to the governor’s office.

The bill would reduce waste by reducing the use of plastics and boosting recycling and compostables. The current version, removed from last year’s proposal, would ban manufacturers of single-use plastic packaging and single-use food products from selling, distributing or importing these products unless they are recyclable or compostable. .

Save Our Shores Executive Director Katherine O’Dea rallies her supporters against single-use plastic water bottles in August 2019 on the steps of County Government Center. (Dan Coyro – Santa Cruz Sentinel File)

As the Lowenthal Bill and the whirlwind of other proposed state laws signal growing concern about the issue, Coffee points to SB 54 as a potential watermark.

“If SB 54 passes, it could be that moment,” Coffee said. “Then other states could see what’s possible and follow suit, and that could help something nationwide as well. California is often the leader in this type of legislation. “

Allen was able to appease the American Beverage Association enough last year that the trade group did not oppose his bill – although the trade group did not support it either. The State Chamber of Commerce opposed this version, although most of the sources of their objections are not currently in the version proposed this year. Those provisions were removed, including a fine of up to $ 50,000 per day for violators and giving the state recycling authority the power to design a program that would ultimately reduce single-use waste by 75%.

“We are working with the industry to address their concerns while keeping our eyes on the price,” Allen said Wednesday March 31st. “It’s not about removing products and packaging. This is to encourage producers to use more sustainable materials and reduce unnecessary and expensive waste. “

Meanwhile, CALPIRG’s Deeg stressed the importance of continuous progress at the national and local levels to accelerate change at the national level.

“The more we can point to effective policies, the better our chances of a complete overhaul,” she said.

Summary of invoices

SB 54, which would require single-use plastics to be recyclable or compostable, attracted the most attention of plastic waste bills before the California legislature this year. But there are at least 11 other plastics proposals before state lawmakers.



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