In 2018, on New Year’s Day, the world of trash changed forever.
Before that fateful morning, the US was sending 4,000 shipping containers full of its recyclable waste to China every day—almost three-quarters of all the country’s recyclables. And for years, China accepted it on the premise that it could process the recycling and make a profit selling it as post-consumer materials. But the truth is that the US was bad at recycling, and kept getting worse: The bales being sent to China were badly contaminated. This was partly due to so-called “single-stream” recycling, which many cities adopted about a decade earlier.
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Single-stream meant that citizens were required to put all recyclables into one bin. It was supposed to improve recycling rates. Instead, it created waste streams so contaminated that China could scarcely do anything with the shipments. Most single-use plastic objects can’t be recycled, but due to a lack of information, the average American didn’t know that. Plus, mixing glass with paper meant shards of glass mixed with paper—rendering both unusable. In short, American recycling was broken. The deal was no longer worth it and China decided it had had enough. It imposed a policy known as “national sword,” which raised the standard of how “pure” a bale of plastic must be to the point where the US and other countries, for the most part, could no longer comply. On Jan. 1, 2018, the law went into effect, and China effectively closed its doors to the world’s trash.
This hit California very hard. The state was sending fully two-thirds of its recyclable materials to China. “This shift in China’s policy has resulted in the loss of markets for low-value plastic packaging that was previously considered recyclable. That material is now being landfilled or burned,” reads California Assembly Bill 1080, which was introduced into California’s legislature in February. With no market for recycled plastic, even recyclers are forced to landfill or incinerate what they collect. Bottle deposit centers, where Californians could redeem a soda bottle in exchange for five cents, are closing throughout the state.
Now that bill, along with two others, are poised to dramatically reimagine California’s relationship to plastic, mostly by trying to prevent industries from producing new, virgin plastic in the first place. Right now, the US produces 335 million tons of new plastic each year. If passed, the bills would ban the production or sale of any non-recyclable single-use packaging containers in the state by 2030. They would also require California to either recycle 75% of all single-use plastic packaging and products sold or distributed in California, or otherwise find a way for them not to end up in landfills. That would mean almost doubling the state’s current rate. Right now, just 44% of waste is diverted from landfills, according to the Los Angeles Times.
One of the three bills, AB 792, would also require all drink containers to be made of at least 75% recycled plastic by 2035.
The bills are close to landing on the governor’s desk for final passage—but they have only until Friday, Sept. 13, when California’s legislative year ends, to be passed or die on the vine. (Update, Sept. 14: The legislative year ended without the bills coming to a vote.)
Meanwhile, consumer companies and the plastic industry have mounted “11th hour campaigns” to kill or weaken the measures.
A South Carolina company called Novolex is behind one social media campaign to spread concerns about the legislation, according to the Los Angeles Times. The campaign is called “Californians for the Environment and Recycling,” and claims that the bills would make products that “families rely on for food, health, and well-being” unavailable.
The ban in California could have impacts on the sector in other states, because any company importing goods to California would have to comply with its plastic standards. Much like California’s emissions standards tend to cause changes in the automotive industry nationally, such a bill has the potential to shift the plastic landscape more broadly.