Opinion: Plastic recycling has largely failed; California must find a new solution

plastic bottles
Plastic bottles. Photo via Pixabay

Plastic waste is the legacy we leave to our children. It is everywhere: in remote alpine lakes, in deep underwater trenches and even inside us. Studies show that we consume up to the equivalent of a plastic credit card every week.

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

Meanwhile, the production of plastics is heating up the planet. In 2019, the Center for International Environmental Law estimates that the production and end-of-life management of plastics contributes the equivalent of 850 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. This figure is expected to increase as production increases unabated.

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

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

Colorado, Maine and Oregon recently passed legislation to curb the proliferation of non-recyclable packaging and other single-use plastics. It’s time for California to reclaim its position as an environmental leader in plastics and implement a meaningful and sustainable solution.

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

So what does the action look like?

First, we need to drastically reduce the amount of plastic we use, starting with single-use plastics and catering utensils. Throughout my tenure as State Comptroller, I have worked to develop a sustainable “blue economy” for California. The foundation of this effort is a healthy ocean free of plastic debris.

As a member of the Oceans Protection Council, I voted to pass the first National Microplastics Strategy, calling for comprehensive goals to reduce, reuse and refill plastic sources statewide by 2023. Industry must lead this effort by reducing packaging; encourage reusable or rechargeable alternatives; and replacing hard-to-manage materials with recyclables such as glass, metal or paper.

Second, we need to make sure that the remaining plastics are actually recyclable. We must set ambitious targets and timelines for an industry that has long resisted such producer mandates, and we must give the state the ability to levy meaningful fines for non-compliance.

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

California leaders are considering two potential options to get us to reduce the use of plastics.

A ballot initiative entitled California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act must be presented to voters in November. The move would require industry to reduce single-use plastics by 25% and ensure that by 2030, all single-use plastic packaging and food utensils used in California are recyclable, reusable, refillable or compostable.

On the legislative level, Senator Ben Allenmy fellow member of the Oceans Protection Council, has just released a new draft of his Senate Bill 54that would require producers to drastically reduce plastic packaging and ensure that all foodservice packaging and items in California are reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2032. After years of negotiation, Senator Allen has rallied a wide range of local governments and environmental organizations in support of this effort.

Whatever path the heads of state choose, the only option we cannot afford is continued inaction. Californians can’t wait another year – another day – to tackle the legacy of plastic waste we burden on our children.

Betty Ye is the California Comptroller and member of the California Oceans Protection Council. She wrote this for Cal Mattersa public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California Capitol works and why it matters.

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