In ‘historic achievement’ for environmentalists, an 11th hour plastics deal becomes law

·5 min read
Renée C. Byer/

A week ago, the prospect of an agreement on California plastics reduction legislation looked unlikely.

The bill was stuck between environmentalists who said it wasn’t progressive enough and business interests that wanted more control. It hadn’t even seen its first committee vote. After sitting in the legislature for four years, all signs pointed to a fifth.

So lawmakers and environmentalists were emotional Thursday when SB-54, a massive bill that would force producers to cut down on plastic production, passed the Senate 29-0 and earned Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

“This is what our voters are asking us for — they say, ‘get these ballot measures off the ballot if you can get them fixed yourself in the legislature,’” said Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, who introduced the bill. “This was an example of the Legislature doing its work, coming together, forging a meaningful, strong compromise that will put California at the forefront of addressing a global problem.”

On the Senate floor Thursday morning, lawmakers praised Allen, as well as the coalition of business and environmental advocates who worked to make SB 54 happen. Allen first introduced the bill in December of 2018, and it repeatedly failed. But it gained more attention this year, as lawmakers presented it as an alternative to a costly ballot initiative with similar goals.

The bill will require California producers cut down on single-use plastic packaging and foodware by 25% over the next ten years. It will charge producers and plastic resin manufacturers $500 million annually, money which will go toward conservation efforts. The measure is built on the Extended Producer Responsibility model, developed by the state’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) to hold producers accountable for the impacts of their products.

“The plastic industry spends millions of dollars every year to trick the public into thinking all plastic packaging is recyclable,” said Martin Bourque, Executive Director of the Berkeley Ecology Center. “Now they will have to rethink their packaging strategies or pay full cost for their impacts.”

SB-54 got its first vote on Tuesday in the Natural Resources Committee. As she gave her remarks, chair Luz Rivas confessed that a week prior, “I didn’t think this hearing would happen.” Rivas wasn’t the only one — Alexis Jackson, Ocean Policy and Plastics Lead at the Nature Conservancy in California, said Thursday’s vote was something “that I think a lot of people thought was impossible.”

SB-54 has faced criticism — some lawmakers and environmentalists don’t like that it grants producers the power to regulate themselves. But in last week, some environmental groups that opposed the bill let up.

Late amendments

In the days leading up to the bill’s first hearing, Allen amended it to clarify it would effectively ban Styrofoam. Late amendments also increased the state’s ability to revoke approval of producer responsibility organizations and affirmed that producers “must take financial responsibility for the full lifecycle of their products,” according to bill spokesperson Kevin Liao.

Moreover, environmentalists behind the ballot initiative, which would require reduction targets to be met two years earlier and which would leave less power to producers, announced on Wednesday that they would drop the measure should Newsom sign SB-54. As of Thursday afternoon, the measure was listed as “withdrawn” on the Secretary of State’s website.

Petitioners Linda Escalante of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Caryl Hart of the California Coastal Commission and Michael Sangiacomo of waste management firm Recology wrote in a statement that they originally started the initiative after seeing the Legislature “repeatedly fail” to pass reforms to address plastic pollution.

“We three petitioners will leave the final decision of the ballot measure up to the State Assembly and Senate,” they wrote. “If our elected representatives believe that we can achieve the laudable reforms of SB54 and defend its provisions against industry tactics aimed at maintaining the status quo, we will withdraw the measure once it is signed by Governor Newsom.”

Other environmentalists, many of whom were involved in SB 54 negotiations, celebrated the bill’s passage on Thursday. Negotiations lasted hundreds of hours in total, Allen said, with 25 stakeholders meeting regularly over the last seven months.

“This bill is a historic achievement,” Mary Creasman, Chief Executive Officer of California Environmental Voters, said. “California is on the verge of systematically addressing the crisis of plastics pollution - the first state in the nation to do so.”

But while the petitioners agreed to drop the initiative, they stopped short of celebrating.

They stressed that for SB-54 to have its desired impact, implementation is important, and expressed concerns that the industry will not end up taking the steps that the bill outlines.

“While some have made claims that SB 54 is the strongest plastics pollution policy ever to be enacted in the United States, we are less interested in hyperbole and more focused on how the policy will be implemented and enforced,” the petitioners wrote.

Melissa Romero, the Senior Legislative Manager of California Environmental Voters, agreed that implementation of the bill will be crucial. She noted that it contains remedies for a lack of industry action; if the plastics industry doesn’t meet SB-54’s goals, the state is granted the ability to regulate plastic production.

“Corporate accountability, of course, is a really critical aspect to climate policy and plastic pollution policy in general,” Romero said.

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