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May/June 2023

California tackles plastic pollution at the source

Tara Brock


  • Addresses California’s bold step to address plastic pollution.
  • Explains California’s comprehensive extended producer responsibility (EPR) program for packaging and foodware.
  • Urges consumers and producers to refocus efforts on reduction and reuse while continuing to improve recycling.
California tackles plastic pollution at the source
Sunyixun via Getty Images

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In 2022, California took a bold step to address plastic pollution by enacting the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act (Senate Bill (SB) 54), which dramatically overhauls how single-use packaging and single-use plastic foodware will be offered for sale, sold, distributed, and imported in the state, and tackles plastic pollution at the source. 

The problem with plastic

An estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the marine environment each year with devastating consequences for the ocean ecosystem. Everywhere we look, we find plastic; it is in our land, water, air, food, and even in our bodies. And the problem is expected to get worse as the production and use of single-use plastic has skyrocketed over the last decade. Today, nearly 40 percent of the plastic produced annually is for single-use plastics and packaging, a sector that has expanded rapidly due to a global shift from reusable to single-use containers.

Almost all plastics are made from fossil fuels and contribute to climate change across every stage of their life cycle, from production to use and disposal. If plastic were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. In the United States, plastic is projected to outpace coal’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The scientific consensus is clear that we must decrease plastic production and consumption if we are to meet our climate goals and stop flooding our environment with plastic. California’s law helps set us on that path by implementing several key policy mandates.

Reduce, reuse, and recycle

Most of the focus in dealing with our plastic waste has focused on end-of-life waste management—and it has been an utter failure. Less than 9 percent of all plastic created has been recycled, 12 percent has been burned, and the remaining 79 percent has ended up in landfills or the environment. Even a robust recycling system cannot keep pace with the ballooning production of plastics, particularly single-use plastics, which are often difficult to recycle. We must refocus our efforts on reduction and reuse while continuing to improve recycling. SB 54 applies all 3Rs to address the plastics crisis by:

  • mandating a 25 percent reduction in the weight and number of single-use plastic packaging and foodware items by January 1, 2032 (based on a baseline year of 2023);·
  • instituting the first statewide reuse and refill mandates in the nation, which will require large investments in reuse and refill infrastructure; and
  • requiring all single-use packaging (including non-plastic materials) and plastic single-use foodware be recyclable or compostable and imposing mandatory recycling rates on plastic materials that ramp up to 65 percent by 2032.

Importantly, the law requires that recycled materials go to responsible end markets and prohibits the use of harmful technologies to meet the recycling rates, including burning plastics and using plastic waste to generate energy or fuel, processes that the plastics industry has cleverly re-branded as “advanced recycling.”

Based on data from the state’s waste characterization studies, scientists at Ocean Conservancy estimate that the 25 percent reduction alone will eliminate nearly 46 billion pounds of single-use plastics over the next decade. California’s law also incorporates the concept of “peak plastic” by requiring additional regulatory action if the consumption of single-use plastic packaging and foodware in the state further increases after these mandates are implemented.

Extended producer responsibility

To implement the above requirements, California adopted a comprehensive extended producer responsibility (EPR) program for packaging and foodware. EPR systems are meant to hold producers financially accountable for the cost of managing their packaging and products in the waste stream. The general theory is that by requiring producers to internalize the cost of managing and recycling their waste, they will redesign their packaging and products to use less material and be more environmentally conscious.

EPR programs for packaging have been implemented around the world. The European Union has had such programs in place since the 1990s. While Colorado, Maine, and Oregon have EPR programs for packaging, none require strict reductions of plastic or mandate that producers start shifting to reusable and refillable materials. The significance of California’s law stems from the ambitious mandates embedded in the EPR program that go beyond making producers pay for the recycling system, ensuring reductions and reuse are part of the solution.

Environmental mitigation fund

Another groundbreaking part of California’s law is the creation of a $5 billion Plastic Pollution Mitigation Fund paid for by producers of single-use plastic packaging and foodware over the next 10 years with a majority of the funds going to projects in disadvantaged, low-income, and rural communities. A 2021 report by the United Nations Environment Programme and Azul describes how the life cycle of plastics disproportionately affects vulnerable communities by polluting the air, water, and soil where production and disposal facilities are located and through increased exposure to plastic waste and pollution. Recognizing this disparity, SB 54 also requires that any implementing regulations or new infrastructure avoid causing disproportionate harm to those communities.

Global impact

As the fifth largest economy in the world, California is again on the forefront of environmental policy. The impacts of this law are likely to ripple across the country and around the globe. How California implements these policies is critical to the law’s success. And while California took a monumental first step, there is more work to do. As the world looks to address plastic consumption, we need more ambitious reductions and to reinvest in reuse and refill systems that once were the norm.