California lawmakers voted Sept. 1 to limit exports of plastic waste collected for recycling, a move proponents say is needed to get a more honest picture of the state’s waste and limit pollution in other countries.
It is believed to be the first time a state tries to directly control its own plastic waste exports.
The vote comes about two months after Sacramento lawmakers passed a similar but non-binding resolution calling on Washington and President Joe Biden to join the Basel Convention and its global deal to limit the trade in plastic waste.
The September 1st vote to pass Assembly Bill 881 aims to limit the export of mixed plastic waste of lesser value, but still allow the export of polyethylene, PET and polypropylene waste as these materials are seen as stronger markets and likely to actually be recycled.
“Sending our plastic waste to another country to become someone else’s problem is dangerous and only causes more damage to the planet,” Congregation’s lead author Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said in a statement. “AB-881 ensures that we are honest and transparent about our commitment to reducing plastic waste in California and that we are achieving our recycling goals.”
The bill does not specifically prohibit the export of mixed scrap of lower value, but it does prevent California cities from using those exports when calculating plastic recycling rates to meet state goals.
This removes the incentive for cities to export materials with weak domestic markets.
A legal analysis submitted with the bill states that it is unclear how much of these materials is actually recycled in the countries to which they are exported and how much is incinerated, dumped or released into the environment.
Nick Lapis, advocacy director at environmental group Californians Against Waste, said AB 881 would also address public skepticism about recycling if people find out that some of what they throw in the blue trash cans isn’t recycled.
“It has caused so many consumers to lose confidence in recycling as a whole, and it’s completely unfair to companies that really use recyclable materials,” he said.
He said the bill targets the export of bales of mixed scrap with resin identification codes 3-7: “What happened to 3-7 that were shipped overseas with no real markets was a disaster.”
The vote on AB-881 comes after the state legislature passed an advisory resolution in July calling on Washington to ratify the Basel Convention, a UN treaty that dates back to the 1980s and was updated in 2019, to include restrictions on the trade in plastic waste.
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that has not ratified and formally acceded to the Basel Treaty, according to a press release by MP Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, author of the resolution.
Both chambers adopted the AB-881 and the Basel resolutions with broad support. AB-881 goes to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk to get his signature, which is what supporters were expecting.
One of AB-881’s sponsors said during a Senate debate in late August that there was no formal opposition.
The state’s plastic waste exports have also drawn the attention of environmental groups.
A May 18 letter from more than 10 groups to state officials said the US was the world’s largest exporter of plastic waste to countries outside the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and said California accounted for 27 percent of US exports .
“More than any other state, California’s recycling facilities continue to accept plastic waste that is exported to developing countries that have poor wage and old-age labor standards and poor environmental protection,” the letter said. It was signed by Greenpeace, the Surfrider Foundation, Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and others.