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Roya Sabri headshot

California’s Landmark Plastics Law Invites More Innovation from Industry

By Roya Sabri

California’s new Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act (Senate Bill 54) represents an alliteration of good news for environmentalism in the U.S. According to the Associated Press, the act takes the “toughest” measures against the proliferation of single-use plastics seen in the U.S.

The Golden State may well be setting itself up as another trendsetter in environmental regulation. After all, eight years ago, California was the first state to impose a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. Since then, seven other states have followed that lead

The law requires that by 2032 all single-use packaging and food service ware be recyclable or compostable. By that same year, industry will need to cut single-use plastic waste by one-quarter and increase the amount of plastics recycled by 65 percent. There will be accountability through CalRecycle, where plastic manufacturers will submit their plans and report annual progress. There will also be financial obligations for the industry to the tune of $500 million a year over the course of 10 years, funneled to communities that have been most negatively affected by plastic pollution

The bill was authored by Senator Ben Allen, who in a statement explained the level of cooperation involved during the four-year process. “We knew that we needed to act,” said Allen, who chairs the California Legislature’s environmental caucus and the state senate’s environmental quality committee. “And in this time of extreme polarization in our nation, California was able to show that we can pass strong environmental legislation with bipartisan support that brought together the environmental and business communities.” 

Why would businesses get behind such a costly bill?

The organizations that have been supportive of Senate Bill 54 range from nonprofits like Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and the Monterey Bay Aquarium; industry groups including the Association of Plastic Recyclers and the American Sustainable Business Network; and companies such as Seventh Generation and Waste Management. 

Before the bill was passed, the American Sustainable Business Network published a statement that lays out some reasons why business interests would (and should) get behind this type of legislation. “We believe it is important to reduce plastic waste pollution and clean up our supply chain and particularly to focus on the role of single-use plastics in product packaging and incentivizing innovative packaging solutions,” the group wrote, adding that, “Reducing plastic waste will save local governments millions in disposal costs, protect our environment, drive us towards more innovative solutions and help move us towards a healthier and more sustainable economy.”

Those statements are confirmed by the overwhelming trends governing our global economies. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Audrey Choi, Morgan Stanley’s chief sustainability officer, outlined some of those trends that are leading businesses away from single-use plastics, many of which are hard to ignore. Companies interested in reducing capital costs, for example, should pay attention to investor concerns. A 2019 report from Morgan Stanley revealed that investors are increasingly committed to sustainable solutions – finding that 85 percent of individual investors are interested in sustainable investing. 

Choi also emphasized that single-use plastics represent a $100 billion annual economic value – a wasted business opportunity if all that value ends up in the trash after one use. That’s why businesses that set aside the model of single-use plastics can find an opportunity to reduce their operating costs by rethinking how products are presented to customers and shipped to retailers, Choi wrote. As regulatory bodies continue to require alignment with more climate-friendly and less polluting policies, companies that make the needed shifts are also avoiding risks to compliance. The financial penalties built into Senate Bill 54 can reach up to $50,000 a day per violation. 

A plastics bill that both companies and environmental advocates can respect

Those linked to Ocean Conservancy see a big win in Senate Bill 54, because it does the vital work of decreasing the amount of single-use plastics produced. After all, based on current projections, global plastic waste may triple by 2060. In a statement promoting the bill before it was passed, Nicholas Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program, said, “This bill boils down to fewer plastics on shelves, and less plastic pollution in our ocean. As the country’s biggest state economy, California has the potential to lead the United States out of its plastic pollution crisis.”

Image credit: Mark Harpur via Unsplash

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

Read more stories by Roya Sabri