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Opinion: Plastics Recycling Has Largely Failed — California Must Find a New Solution

OpinionOpinion: Plastics Recycling Has Largely Failed — California Must Find a New Solution

Plastic bottlesPlastic bottles. Photo via Pixabay

Plastic waste is the legacy we are leaving our children. It is everywhere: In remote alpine lakes, in deep sea trenches, and even inside us. Studies show we consume up to a credit-card worth of plastic every week.

The latest stunning research has found microplastics in every single sample of freshly fallen Antarctic snow.

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Meanwhile, the production of plastics is warming the planet. In 2019, the Center for International Environmental Law estimated the production and end-of-life management of plastics globally contributes the equivalent of 850 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. That  figure is projected to grow as production increases unabated.

Sadly, plastics recycling has largely failed us, and the consequences for our environment and health are significant. For years, consumers have been led to believe that through their diligence, plastic waste could be managed responsibly and even contribute to a circular economy — that is, be reused and eliminate waste. The plastics industry has enthusiastically supported this idea.

We now know that many single-use plastics are difficult and uneconomical to recycle, resulting in a dismal 5% recycling rate for all plastic waste in the United States. The rest ends up in landfills, burned, leaked into our environment as litter or, eventually, as microplastics, polluting our air and water.

Colorado, Maine and Oregon recently have passed legislation to curb the proliferation of nonrecyclable packaging and other single-use plastics. It is time for California to reclaim its position of environmental leadership when it comes to plastics and put in place a meaningful and durable solution.

California has stepped up when called upon to take world-leading action on climate change, air quality and land conservation. As a state, we know how to craft smart, responsible, sustainable solutions to the toughest challenges. It is time for us to lead once again.  

So what does action look like? 

First, we must drastically reduce the amount of plastic we use, starting with single-use plastics and food-service ware. Throughout my tenure as state controller, I have worked to develop a sustainable “blue economy” for California. The foundation of this effort is a healthy ocean, free from plastic debris.

As a member of the Ocean Protection Council, I voted to adopt the world’s first Statewide Microplastics Strategy, calling for comprehensive statewide plastic source reduction, reuse and refill goals by 2023. Industry must lead this effort by reducing packaging; encouraging reusable or refillable alternatives; and substituting difficult-to-manage materials with recyclables such as glass, metal or paper.

Second, we must ensure that remaining plastics are truly recyclable. We must set ambitious targets and timelines for an industry that has long resisted such producer mandates, and we must provide the state with the ability to levy meaningful fines for noncompliance.

Third, we must hold plastic producers responsible for providing the financial resources needed to recycle effectively, and to clean up the mess left behind by years of inaction.

California leaders are considering two potential options to move us toward curbing the use of plastics. 

A ballot initiative titled the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act is scheduled to go before voters in November. This measure would require industry to reduce single-use plastics by 25%, and to ensure that by 2030, all single-use plastic packaging and foodware used in California be recyclable, reusable, refillable or compostable.

On the legislative front, Sen. Ben Allen, my fellow Ocean Protection Council member, has just released a new draft of his Senate Bill 54, which would require producers to significantly reduce plastic packaging and ensure all packaging and food-service ware in California is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2032. After years of negotiation, Sen. Allen has rallied a wide range of local governments and environmental organizations in support of this effort.

Whatever path state leaders choose, the one option we cannot afford is continued inaction. Californians cannot wait another year — another day — to address the plastic waste legacy we are heaping upon our children.

Betty Yee is the controller of California and a member of the California Ocean Protection Council. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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