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California mandates recycling of many single-use plastic items

Law excludes chemical recycling of plastic, legislator says

by Cheryl Hogue
July 5, 2022

A worker wearing plastic goves places pickled ginger into a series of single use plastic food containers. Rolls of sushi are in the background.
Credit: Shutterstock
A new California law will require the recycling of most single-use plastic food containers within a decade.

A new California law requires at least 65% of single-use plastic packaging and plastic food ware, such as plates and utensils, sold or distributed in the state be recycled by 2032.

But making fuels from used plastic won’t count toward this recycling goal, under the measure that the California Legislature passed and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed on June 30. The law also excludes technologies that produce significant amounts of hazardous waste from being considered plastic recycling.

According to its author, state Sen. Ben Allen (D), the law doesn’t count what is commonly called chemical recycling of plastic. The statute does not mention pyrolysis, gasification, or solvolysis—processes that can be used to decompose plastics into their molecular components­­—for reuse as part of chemical recycling. But the law prohibits technologies that use these processes from being considered recycling, Allen says in a June 30 letter to the California Secretary of State. In the letter, emailed to C&EN by Allen’s staff, he cites provisions in earlier state laws that describe these breakdown processes as disposal rather than recycling.

This deeply concerns plastics manufacturers. They have touted chemical recycling as a major solution to the world’s burgeoning plastic waste problems.

California needs an improved definition of recycling to allow “innovative technologies that keep hard to recycle plastic out of the environment and landfills [to] count” toward the goals in the new law, Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry group, says in a statement.

“We believe future legislation or regulations should incentivize the use of more post-consumer recycled content in plastic packaging,” Baca adds.

The new California law also requires companies that make, sell, or distribute single-use plastic items or packaging in the state to become part of a producer responsibility organization. Each year from 2027 through 2036, the producer group must pay $500 million to California. The organization may collect up to $150 million of this annual amount from makers of plastic items that are covered by the law.

State agencies will use the money to monitor and reduce the human health and environmental impacts of plastic throughout California. Agencies must also mitigate current and historic health impacts of plastic pollution in disadvantaged and low-income communities.

Enactment of the law headed off a November ballot initiative that would have required that all single-use food ware and plastic packaging in the state be recyclable, refillable, or compostable by 2030.



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