Cal. Governor Newsome Signs Cutting-Edge Plastics Bill into Law

Amidst a series of incursions and roadblocks for environmental groups throughout the nation, most recently through EPA constraints executed by the Supreme Court, California has once again demonstrated its commitment as a pioneer in tackling climate issues at the source. On the very same day that the United States Supreme Court released its decision regarding West Virginia v. EPA – a significant ruling that seeks to constrain the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority – California Governor, Gavin Newsome, signed SB 54 into law. This landmark bill will require all plastic packaging in the state to be recyclable or compostable by 2032, the statute will also require a reduction in plastic packaging and plastic components by 25 percent over the next ten years. According to the bill’s language, a “plastic component” refers to any single piece of plastic-covered material, whether that be a juice box straw or a food wrapper. Regarding the motivation for this bill, Newsome stated, “Our kids deserve a future free of plastic waste and all its dangerous impacts, everything from clogging our oceans to killing animals — contaminating the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. No more.”

The bill’s lead author, Senator Ben Allen, commented on the merit of SB 54, “For far too long, plastic waste has been a growing burden for humans, animals, and the water, soil, and air we need to exist. 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.” The ease in passing this bill also exhibits how California lawmakers are prioritizing these matters of prevailing significance; SB 54 was passed in the State Assembly in a 67-2 vote, and by 29-0 in the State Senate. However, reaching this point of legislative achievement did not occur overnight. In fact, in the weeks leading up to Governor Newsome’s signing of the bill, the document underwent frenzied amendment negotiations to produce the most advantageous version possible. Previously, petitioners for the bill saw their efforts stalled in 2019, 2020, and 2021, making this recent legislative imprinting of the bill all the more monumentous.

These roadblocks to enacting the bill in years prior were not the only barriers that proponents for SB 54 encountered. While environmental lobbyist groups and California policymakers were in agreement that a legal remedy was necessary to fix the state’s long standing failed recycling program, there was extensive debate as to whether a bill signed by Governor Newsome, or a ballot measure voted upon by the people would be better. Ultimately, through the hurried proactivity of policymakers, Newsome was able to sign SB 54 into effect, allowing proponents who backed the ballot measure to withdraw the initiative just before the deadline to do so.

Senator Allen commented on the scenario, applauding the ability of both supporters of Bill SB 54 and those backing the ballot measure to work together to develop a plan that encompasses both groups’ long-term goals. “It’s a groundbreaking effort to reduce plastic pollution that has brought environmental and business groups together,” Allen told CalMatters. “This is what the voters asked us to do — solve these problems together.” Yet, while the bill does not achieve everything sought by the ballot measure proponents, many major environmental groups and lobbyist organizations have expressed their support for the bill, which Newsome describes will “hold polluters responsible and cut plastics at the source.”

A major point of contention between the designers of Bill SB 54 centered around whether to work with the plastic industry in restructuring a basis for plastic production or force the industry to cut back pollution through regulatory enforcement. SB 54 gives the plastics industry more time to comply with changing mandates than the proposed ballot measure, pushing the timeline back to 2032 from 2030, respectively. By 2032, all single-use plastics and food ware are obligated to be recyclable, reusable, refillable, and compostable; whereas, currently, only a small portion of all plastic waste is recycled within the state.

Under the current timetable for SB 54, at least 30% of plastic packaging must be recycled by January 1, 2028. This standard will increase to 40% by January 1, 2030, and finally 65% by January 1, 2032. The Bill will impose a fee on single-use plastics, the proceeds from which will be allocated to the Natural Resources Agency and local government recycling programs.

Upon the passing of the bill, the Plastics Industry Association commented that, though it could not support SB 54, the bill “presents opportunities to continue to work to solve the recycling issues in the state of California in a way that a ballot initiative would not.” This is the precise outcome that Senator Allen had sought; ensuring countenance with the plastic industry, which this bill intends to revolutionize, will drastically further the progress of the bill’s prodigious ambition. The next steps to ensure the bill’s success will necessitate the industry and regulators working together to make certain that SB 54’s implementation correlates to the bill’s intent to phase out plastic pollution and advance plastics circularity, all the while minimizing the costs on state residents.

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