Why California’s single-use plastic bill is in political limbo

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Senate Bill 54, introduced by State Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), aimed to eliminate three-quarters of single-use, or disposable, plastic bags and containers in the next 10 years. But the legislature adjourned last week without voting on the bill.

“It became a casualty of a lot of the last minute Kabuki theater of the final day," Allen told KCRW. 

However, he expressed confidence that the bill would pass during the next session in January. “I think we’re actually well-placed to get this across the finish line in the coming year. I think there were a lot of members who just always assumed this was going to be a two-year bill because it was so ambitious in scope and size," he said. 

State Senator Ben Allen, February 2016. Credit: LA Mountains (CC BY 2.0.)

Opposition and optimism

Allen’s bill faced opposition from plastic and fossil fuel industries. 

Allen reinforced that the bill wasn't anti-plastic, and was willing to work with industry folks to amend it. "We are totally open to reasonable edits and changes to the bill. We’re not putting you out of business, we’re just asking you to shift to a more sustainable model," he said.

The state senator pointed out that SB 54 has gained popularity among some plastic manufacturers and grocers. The American Chemistry Council and the American Beverage Association moved from opposition to neutral after extensive negotiations, and the California Grocers Association moved to support.

But the Plastics Industry Association remains opposed. Shannon Crawford, its director of state government affairs, said, “While we remained opposed to SB 54 due to fundamental flaws that would have prevented proper implementation, we were encouraged by the final round of amendments, which we believe were the result of significant discussion with the legislators. We continue to support the overall intent of this bill to increase the proper recycling and recovery of all plastic."

Two related bills did pass: AB 54 and AB 792, by San Francisco assemblyman Phil Ting. These bills aim to prop up the struggling recycling markets and increase the amount of recycled plastic in beverage containers.

But to get his bill passed, Sen. Allen says people need to be educated about the dangers posed by single-use and unrecyclable plastics.

In California, $25 million is spent every year to dispose of plastic products in landfills. Since the 1950s, more than 9.1 billion tons of plastic have been produced across the globe. 

-- Written by Danielle Chiriguayo