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This California law changes things for plastics in the state

It will impose new sustainability requirements on all businesses manufacturing single-use packaging or plastic single-use service ware.

People sort waste in a recycling facility

Image via Shutterstock/Vitaly Fedotov

All businesses selling into California will need to integrate new sustainability requirements into their use of plastics and plastic packaging.

Signed into law this summer, the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act (SB 54) will impose new sustainability regulatory requirements on all businesses manufacturing single-use packaging or plastic single-use service ware.

The law targets not only manufacturers but sellers of all goods sold in California, and thus will apply to the owner or licensee of the brand or trademark under which the covered product is sold or otherwise brought into California by distributors or retailers. This would sweep in nearly any company that makes any consumer or commercial goods with single-use packaging or food service ware sold in the state.

Under the law, producers of covered material — defined as certain single-use packaging and plastic single-use food service ware — are required to join a producer responsibility organization (PRO) by Jan. 1, 2024, or be prohibited from selling, offering for sale, importing or distributing such covered materials in California. These include the following:

  • Single-use packaging: material that is routinely recycled, disposed of or discarded after its contents have been used or unpackaged (and typically not refilled or reused)
  • Food service ware: plastic-coated paper or plastic-coated paperboard, paper or paperboard with plastic intentionally added during the manufacturing process, and multilayer flexible material; these include trays, plates, bowls, clamshells, lids, cups, utensils, stirrers, hinged or lidded containers, and straws as well as wraps or wrappers and bags sold to food service establishments

Limited exemptions from covered products and materials are provided, including for medical products, devices, and drugs; infant formula, medical food and certain supplements; pesticides; dangerous goods and hazardous materials; and long-term packaging for storage with a five-year lifespan.

New law requirements

The PRO will implement and facilitate source reduction, collection, processing and recovering of the covered material through registration, reporting, recordkeeping and auditing requirements. To accomplish these requirements, the PRO is required to establish and collect fees from member-producers as well as contribute $500 million per year to the California Plastic Pollution Mitigation Fund, contribute $500 million per year to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, and pay a "California circular economy administrative fee" to be set by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).

The law additionally requires that producers ensure that all covered material "offered for sale, distributed, or imported in or into the state" on or after Jan. 1, 2032, is recyclable or compostable within the state. To incentivize the recycling or composting of such covered material, the law requires that producers ensure that the following percentages of covered material are recycled by the certain corresponding dates:

  • At least 30 percent of covered material must be recycled beginning Jan. 1, 2028;
  • at least 40 percent of covered material must be recycled by Jan. 1, 2030;
  • and at least 65 percent of covered material must be recycled by Jan. 1, 2032.

Producers must also achieve certain percentages of net source reductions for their products as well as comply with reporting and record-keeping requirements related to annual sales, recycling, composting and source reduction data.

Outside of the requirements for producers and sellers of plastics, the law creates new reporting requirements for the waste handling and disposal industry, such as disposal tonnages, types and quantities of materials disposed of, sold or transferred to other facilities, end users or exporters, brokers, or transporters inside or outside of California.

Where this fits into the international waste regulation landscape

SB 54 builds upon previous plastics waste related policies and agreements, including some international.

In 2018, the European Union adopted a plastics strategy that aims to reduce plastics-related waste, improve recyclability of plastics, incentivize innovation and devise global solutions through the development of international standards on plastics. In 2019, the EU adopted a directive on single-use plastics in 2019 that took effect July 2, 2021. The directive prohibits certain single-use plastic products, including plastic cutlery, plates, straws and beverage stirrers. Like SB 54, the directive establishes certain collection and recycling targets for types of plastic products as well as extended producer responsibility requirements. In fall of 2022, the EU is expected to announce proposals for several new plastics regulations, including on microplastics.

Similar efforts to regulate plastics and enact extended producer responsibility have taken place in the United Kingdom.

The Basel Convention, the 1988 multinational (189 parties) environmental agreement, establishes requirements for the transboundary movement of hazardous waste, solid waste and municipal incinerator ash. These requirements include provisions for packaging, labeling, export controls, and transportation of covered material, including certain plastic wastes. In March 2020, the United Nations launched the negotiation of a new binding international treaty to establish international rules to address the whole of the plastics supply chain. The U.S. Department of State has expressed support for the treaty. The goal is to conclude a new treaty by 2024.

But for now, California’s SB 54 is the world’s most comprehensive plastics-related legislation.

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