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California Introduces Sustainable Packaging Legislation

It should not be surprising to anyone that regulatory agencies around the world have recently begun implementing stricter sustainability legislation. In fact, right now, packaging waste alone can account for up to 25% of what is placed into landfills. A recent, direct attempt to combat this packaging dilemma comes from California. Gavin Newsom, California's Governor, recently signed a monumental piece of legislation into place taking affirmative action against ecosystem-harming plastics. This legislation aims to solve our plastic waste problem at its source rather than simply put policies in place to try to mitigate the aftermath that stems from introducing massive amounts of non-recyclable and non-compostable packaging into the environment.

The Current State of Plastic Pollution According to SB 54

In the SB 54 legislation, the Californian government laid out several declarations about current plastic pollution to reinforce the need for legislation:

  1. In 2021, only 5% of postconsumer plastic waste in the United States was recycled, down from 9.5% in 2014, when the US shipped millions of tons of plastic waste to China. Even then, much of this material was incinerated or dumped into the environment instead of being recycled.
  2. Disadvantaged and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by the human health and environmental impact of plastic pollution.
  3. Local jurisdictions have historically been the backbone of recycling efforts. Legislation should shift this burden to the plastic producers to collect, process, and recycle materials.

From these declarations, it is apparent why the SB 54 legislation was introduced. There is not only a significant impact from plastic pollution, but it disproportionately impacts already disadvantaged communities; and, over the previous decade, the United States has actually regressed in the percent of their postconsumer plastic that is recycled. The cost and logistics burden associated with recycling has historically rested on local communities and jurisdictions; however, with the newly introduced SB 54 legislation, this burden now shifts to the plastic producers themselves.

SB 54: Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act

Put simply, SB 54 is a piece of legislation that aims to combat climate change by building a circular economy. It aims to shift the burden of recycling from local jurisdictions to plastic producers. Additionally, it aims to support the disadvantaged communities that are most adversely affected by plastic waste.

The most significant impact is that this law requires all covered materials offered for sale, distributed, or imported in or into the state on or after January 1st, 2032 is recyclable in the state or eligible for being labeled "compostable" according to ASTM standards.

Furthermore, this legislation requires that for all the covered materials offered for sale, distributed, or imported in or into the state:

  1. There is at least a 30% recycle rate on and after January 1st, 2028.
  2. There is at least a 40% recycle rate on and after January 1st, 2030.
  3. There is at least a 65% recycle rate on and after January 1st, 2032.

What's Covered Under SB 54

Even with SB 54 having very strict requirements, it is still applicable to a wide range of covered materials. It can be applied to:

  1. Single-use packaging that is routinely recycled, disposed of, or discarded after its contents have been used or unpackaged.
  2. Plastic single-use food service ware. This includes, but is not limited to: trays, plates, bowls, clamshells, lids, cups, utensils, stirrers, containers, straws, wraps, wrappers, and even bags sold to food service establishments.

A Decade of Improvement is Needed

With the recycling regression in the United Stated over the previous decade, it is no surprise that forcible legislation is being passed to ensure producers make good on their corporate sustainability goals. it could be argued that SB 54 is the direct result of the United States' recycling regression. This legislation has set a standard for a timely transition to a more sustainable economy. In merely nine years, all covered packaging materials will need to meet the environmental goals laid out in SB 54.

Several plastic producers have already begun the process of making their newer products more eco-friendly; however, if the lofty goals associated with SB 54 are to be achieved, there is a still significant need for improvement on the behalf of plastic producers. As plastic producers continue to work toward more sustainable products, there will be an ever-growing need to work alongside environmental experts and testing labs throughout the R&D process to ensure their products meet the increasing sustainability requirements.