Since 85% of California’s single-use plastics are not recycled, a new law would require truthful labeling

A recycling bin in San Diego. File photo

Every morning when State Senator Ben Allen picked up the newspaper in front of his Santa Monica house, he peeled off the plastic bag with the triangular recycling symbol and tossed it where he thought it belonged: a blue trash can.

But Allen soon learned that he was “wishcycling” – he carefully sorted items with the recycling symbol only to find that they were not being recycled.

“It is technically recyclable under the best conditions at 1,000 degrees in a laboratory in San Marino. But … they are not recycled in the real world, “the Democrat said at a hearing of the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee in June.

This scenario is not unique. Despite the best intentions of Californians diligently trying to recycle yogurt pots, berry containers, and other packaging, it turns out that at least 85% of the single-use plastic in the state is not recycled. Instead, they end up in the landfill.

“Americans find recycling … more confusing than building IKEA furniture, paying their taxes, gambling on the stock market, or understanding their spouse,” Allen said, citing a study by the Consumer Brands Association.

This confusion inspired Allen to write an invoice specifying what types of plastic packaging could advertise the triangular symbol known as “chasing arrows”.

“If you can’t label an item as recyclable because we comply with environmental advertising laws, you shouldn’t be able to put the ‘hunt arrows’ symbol on your product,” Allen said in an interview.

Allen’s legislation is part of a larger 12-bill package aimed at reducing plastics and waste that lawmakers are considering this year.

Proponents believe it will make Californians more understandable about what is, in general, recyclable – and what is not. Opponents in the plastics industry believe the bill could pile up waste in the landfill and increase packaging costs.

So far, the bill has progressed smoothly with the support of the majority Democrats in the legislature. But many other laws to reduce plastic have failed in recent years due to resistance from industry. Allen’s past attempts to crack down on laws that would ban non-recyclable plastic packaging died, despite environmentalists – and a superstar surfer – pushing for it to be passed.

In the midst of these repeated legislative failures in the Capitol, environmentalists have pushed a plastic recycling initiative that is eligible for a nationwide vote in November 2022. It would impose a new one cent tax on single-use plastic manufacturers and require that single-use plastic packaging, containers and utensils be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2030. The tax money would give a boost to recycling and environmental programs. The logic is that when you make plastic items, you also have to give something back to the environment because of the damage plastic does – from bags floating in the oceans to microplastics lurking in food and water.

Allen’s bill now going through the legislature is a much narrower, less ambitious way of addressing the recycling dilemma. Instead of a massive economic overhaul, it sets limits on what “recyclable” means – starting with the labels consumers see on everyday items.

It targets the number framed within the triangular arrow symbol – the resin identification code, which ranges from 1 to 7 depending on the type of plastic. Only those with 1 or 2 (plastic bottles and jugs) are largely recycled in the US. Whether items with codes 3 through 7 are actually recycled depends on local waste management practices. Although some cities, including Sacramento and San Francisco, recycle items with codes 3 through 7, the bill initially only allowed products with codes 1 and 2 (such as sodas and milk jugs) to bear the symbol of the hunting arrows. It would be eliminated from yogurt pots, take-away containers, and many other plastics.

This is a problem for the plastics industry because it would do packaging differently in California than it does in many other states.

It “would force companies to disregard other state laws … represents the Flexible Packaging Association of Industry Manufacturers and Suppliers and AMERIPEN, which includes companies such as Campbell’s, McDonald’s and Kellogg’s.

During the June hearing, MP Kelly Seyarto pointed out that if California had different policies from other states, it would come at a price. California-specific packaging could be expensive, adding to the already high cost of living in the Golden State.

“These costs are borne primarily by communities that are predominantly poor and therefore do not really have the means to spend more and more on their food supplies,” said the Republican from Murrieta.

But the communities are already paying the price, argue environmentalists. Local garbage collection quotas are increasing because non-recyclable and recyclable materials are mixed in the blue bins, which requires more sieving and sorting in recycling facilities and slows down the process.

Everyone learned that his newspaper cover with the triangular symbol was causing the same problem. “I thought, oh, this is recyclable – but actually I made things worse when I tried to do the right thing,” he said.

In response to complaints from the plastics industry, Allen amended the bill to give companies an additional 15 months to comply and encourage other states to follow the California approach.

However, this delay is not enough to get the support of the plastics industry.

“Although unintentional, (the bill) will result in less recycling and more materials going to landfills,” said Shannon Crawford, director of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, in her statement.

Cristina Garcia, a member of the Democratic Assembly of Bell Gardens, refuted the argument, saying, “Most of this stuff is already dumped, burned or shipped, and we pretend we’re recycling it outside.”

The draft law allows CalRecycle to decide which materials are “recyclable” and are allowed to carry the triangular symbol. It enables plastics manufacturers to demonstrate that their materials are recyclable so that they can be placed on the approved list.

“What is recyclable is not static,” said Nick Lapis, a lobbyist for the environmental organization Californians Against Waste.

Another option – not included on the bill, but on an environmentalist’s wish list: put a label that says “trash can” on anything that isn’t actually recycled.

“That would be very clear to the public and they would not throw it in the trash,” said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council.

The bill will be put to its final vote when the legislature convenes again on August 16 after their summer recess.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism company dedicated to explaining how the California Capitol works and why it matters.

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