chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.



Plastic pollution policy: California leads, but the crisis requires national and international action

Rachel Doughty and Lisa Boyle


  • We are now all eating and drinking plastic, it litters our rivers and oceans, and only a small fraction is recycled.
  • Legislators and regulators are only now taking tepid steps to address the plastic problem.
  • Localized policies are simply not enough to curtail the plastic pollution problem; much more is needed at the national and international levels.
Plastic pollution policy: California leads, but the crisis requires national and international action
Ana Maria Serrano via Getty Images

Jump to:


Plastic use continues to grow—half of all plastic ever made was produced in the last 20 years. As a result of its ubiquitous presence, we are now all eating and drinking plastic, it litters our rivers and oceans, and only a small fraction is recycled. And, if plastic production were a country, it would be the fifth largest producer of greenhouse gases on the planet, according to Laurie Wright in her article in The Conversation. Yet, legislators and regulators are only now taking tepid steps to address the plastic problem, birthed in the consumer age and unleashed by the industrial retooling at the end of World War II. Legislative and regulatory control is clearly necessary to staunch the flow of this waste. But this awareness comes as the oil industry pivots to expand plastic production in reaction to the government’s focus on conventional fuels that threaten long-term climate goals. Efforts to rein in profitable plastic production will not go unchallenged by the petrochemical industry.

Basel Convention and the United States as an outlier

The Basel Convention controls the international trade in hazardous and certain other wastes. The United States has signed—but not ratified—this international law. In 2019 the convention was amended to add plastic waste to its trade restrictions, preventing the 188 parties to the convention from trading with a non-party (like the United States) absent a bilateral agreement. The United States has such agreements with Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia, and the Philippines, leaving out many countries that have historically taken the United States’ plastic waste. Changes to the Basel Convention may prove even more challenging for the United States as a major plastic waste exporter than China’s plastic waste import restrictions of 2017. (See Colin Staub, Basel changes may have ‘bigger impact’ than China ban, Resource Recycling (May 17, 2019),

At the time this article was prepared for publication, the U.N. Environment Assembly (UNEA) was scheduled to consider in late February adopting a treaty to control global plastic pollution. While most nations have agreed to participate, the timing and especially the scope remain up for grabs—environmental nongovernmental organizations, the plastics industry, and countries have different ideas about what the treaty should cover.  

A federal approach to combat plastic pollution

The Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act, championed by environmental activists, failed to pass in 2020 and 2021 in the face of opposition from chemical and plastic manufacturers. The act would require producers of plastic to internalize the effects of their products: in essence, to take responsibility for the long-term waste and health impacts. It would require manufacturers to take into consideration the recyclability of their packaging choices, launch a nationwide container refund program, encourage investment in recycling infrastructure, protect the right of state and local governments to adopt more stringent standards, and place a moratorium on permitting of new and expanded plastic production facilities. The bill faces a sharply divided Congress again in 2022.

California embraces transparency and promotes a circular economy for glass

In the absence of a unifying federal approach, California is stepping up its efforts on legislation to daylight its broken recycling and waste management system. In 2021 Governor Newsom signed plastic pollution legislation including laws that stop the counting of exported waste as recycling (AB 881) and stop misleading claims about recycling by banning the use of chasing arrows on items that cannot be recycled (SB 343). Another law allows for the refill of glass bottles instead of requiring them to be crushed (AB 962).

Under AB 881, “the export of plastic wastes shall not constitute diversion through recycling and shall be considered disposal.” The goal is to prohibit offshoring California waste under the guise of recycling that never actually happens. The new law imposes civil fines of up to $10,000 per violation for various actions including, “knowingly or willfully fil[ing] a false report” regarding disposals to the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

SB 343 bars the use of the “chasing arrows” symbol on any product or packaging “unless the product or packaging is considered recyclable in the state . . . and is of a material type and form that routinely becomes feedstock used in the production of new products or packaging.” The proscriptive elements of the law will take effect on January 1, 2024. In the interim, the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery must work to provide the public with information “sufficient for evaluating whether a product or packaging” is recyclable.

Meanwhile, AB 962 aims to “encourage and support the reuse, as well as the recycling, of empty beverage containers.” To incentivize reusable glass containers, the law provides that “[t]he processing payment for a reusable beverage container shall be the same amount paid for other glass beverage containers.” The Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery will oversee the program and ensure compliance by certified processors.

Bills tackle microfiber pollution

The biggest source of microplastic pollution in our environment is microfibers from the plastic material in our clothing. France is the first nation to require washing machine filters to collect these plastic fibers in all machines sold by 2025. Closer to home, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution national bill was amended in 2021 to mandate washing machine filters, while California is considering two bills to target microfiber pollution: AB 802 (Bloom) Microfiber Pollution and AB 622 (Friedman) Washing Machines: Microfiber Filtration.

California Attorney General supports environmental accountability

The poor bear the brunt of society’s insatiable appetite for plastic, including pollution from refining fossil fuels, the feedstock for plastic. Challenging the acceptance of that reality, the California Office of the Attorney General intervened in a lawsuit brought by grassroots advocacy organizations against the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District, which had exempted four area fuel refineries from complying with a new state air quality rule, imposing air quality impacts on the neighboring poor, largely-Hispanic community that would be illegal in wealthier parts of the state. The suit relied on a screening tool called CalEnviroScreen, which pinpoints pollution sources and the areas where pollution is the worst, identifying overburdened communities. The suit argues that disproportionate impacts must be considered by local officials in granting permits. Following the trend, the newly introduced AB 1001 (2022) would amend the California Environmental Quality Act to require consideration of environmental justice and impact mitigation for certain projects.

Nationally, the Biden administration is creating a replica of CalEnviroScreen as part of federal efforts to promote environmental justice. All these environmental justice efforts could force producers to internalize and limit the impacts of plastic manufacturing.

California citizens’ initiative

Finally, in November 2022, voters in California will have the opportunity to take direct action. A state ballot initiative titled the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act would curtail reliance on single use plastic packaging and foodware by imposing a Plastic Pollution Reduction Fee on such items. Funds generated would be used to improve waste management and recycling and mitigate the impacts of single use plastics.

In just the past decade or so, the world has come to understand that stemming the increasing flow of plastic waste demands solutions at the national and international level. Will 2022 be a landmark year where plastic pollution reduction policies finally take hold?