The United States produces the most plastic trash of any country, and it ranks third among coastal nations in terms of litter, illegally dumped trash, and other mismanaged waste on its beaches. Despite this abundance of disposable plastic—scientists estimated 46 million tons in 2016—the United States manages to recycle just under 9 percent of its waste each year.
So, when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed sweeping plastic waste legislation last week, it was heralded as a watershed moment that could reshape how the country deals with the growing amount of plastic waste.
The new law intends to accomplish several major goals at once. Most significantly, it calls for a 25% reduction in plastics in single-use products in California by 2032—a first in regulatory efforts in the United States to slow the growth of plastic manufacturing, which is expected to triple to 32 million tons per year by mid-century. Reducing packaging size, switching to refillable containers, or packaging made from other materials, such as recyclable paper or aluminum, can all help. According to the Ocean Conservancy, those packaging reductions would save nearly 23 million tons of single-use plastics over the next decade. According to CalRecycle, the state’s waste management agency, Californians throw away approximately 4.5 million tons of plastics each year.
The new law also mandates that 30 percent of plastic be recycled by 2028, rising to 65 percent by 2032—a significant increase. It also requires the industry to set up a $5 billion fund over the next decade to assist low-income communities affected by plastic pollution.
Finally, it shifts the cost of recycling away from municipalities and taxpayers and onto the industry. The practice, known as “extended producer responsibility,” (EPR), has been in use in the European Union (EU) since the 1990s and is credited with increasing recycling rates in Western Europe, which currently hover around 40%.
Last year, Canada launched an EPR program of this type. Other countries, including India, are developing EPR regulations. In the United States, EPR has been introduced in Congress but has yet to be approved. California follows Oregon, Maine, and Colorado in adopting EPR in slightly different forms.
The new law is expected to have a far-reaching impact on the plastics industry beyond California’s borders. California, as the most populous state and the world’s fifth largest economy, has an impact on markets that other states do not. Automobile manufacturers, for example, agreed to follow California’s stricter fuel emissions standards than federal standards. Experts predict that in the plastics industry, product packaging lines, for example, will be adapted to California’s standards regardless of where the products are sold.
The EU continues to be the global leader in the regulation of plastic products, packaging, and waste. It has banned ten types of single-use plastic products, including expanded polystyrene or foam food and beverage containers, straws and beverage stirrers, and certain biodegradable plastics. In addition, the EU is revising regulations in order to reduce all packaging. In order to encourage the use of recycled plastic, the government is considering mandating recycled content in packaging, vehicles, and construction products.
Other countries have also taken a national approach. The national ban on single-use plastics in India, announced with fanfare last fall, went into effect on July 1. More than a dozen countries, the majority of which are in Africa, have banned plastic shopping bags, the world’s most popular consumer product.
Plastic waste reduction efforts in the United States have been disjointed. Plastic shopping bags, which are thought to be the most commonly used plastic product, have been banned in eight states. Five states have banned expanded polystyrene, or foam, food containers. The plastics industry was successful in convincing legislators in more than a dozen states to pass legislation prohibiting such product bans.
Congress has blocked federal legislation that includes a provision calling for a fee on the production of virgin plastic used to make single-use plastics. The provision is intended to level the playing field in the plastics industry: Making plastic from virgin plastic is far cheaper in the United States than making it from recycled plastic, and these economics contribute to the world’s growing accumulation of plastic trash. Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced last month that single-use plastics will be phased out of national parks and other public lands by 2032.