With One California Recycling Bill Already Dead, Will This Be The Year The State Tackles Its Waste Crisis?

Plastic bottles on a conveyor belt at GreenWaste Recovery's facility in San Jose on July 29, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters.
Plastic bottles on a conveyor belt at GreenWaste Recovery's facility in San Jose on July 29, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters.

By Rachel Becker, CalMatters

Even the special interests that helped kill the California Senate bill aimed at reforming beverage bottle recycling say the state needs to fix its broken system. And one lawmaker who voted no on the bill says he might just introduce his own. Authored by Democratic state Sen. Bob Wieckowski of Fremont, the Beverage Container Recycling Act of 2020 would have required beverage distributors to design a new recycling program —and to help pay for it themselves. But the bill failed a critical juncture after it fell four votes short of passage.

Wieckowski’s bill was one of a handful aimed at addressing two major problems plaguing California’s recycling industry. One is the turmoil in global recycling markets that kicked off when China decided to stop importing much of the world’s waste. The second is the home-grown death of California’s bottle recycling businesses.

Special interests and legislators instead are focusing on a set of identical bills collectively called the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act. The Act aims to curb waste from single-use packaging and food service items like containers, forks, and stirrers that Californians use once, and then toss.

Spearheaded by Democratic lawmakers. Ben Allen from Santa Monica and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, the effort calls for cutting three-quarters of the waste from these single-use products in the next ten years. It also requires manufacturers to make such items 100 percent compostable or recyclable starting in 2030. Those bills are “the big game that we’ve been seeing,” said Tim Schmelzer, vice president of California state relations at the wine Institute, an advocacy organization that represents the California wine industry.

No amendments to the Act have been publicly posted since it stalled in September, so its current breadth is unclear. But Schmelzer and Allen’s team have been working to resolve the Wine Institute’s concerns so it can drop its opposition. “We’re not this hard, throw-our-bodies-across-the-tracks, we-should-never-try-to-recycle type of objections. It’s like, let’s make this bill work a little better,” Schmelzer said.

Recycling centers have been shuttering for years, however —leaving Californians who rely on the income in the lurch. The shutdowns culminated with the closure of major California recycler rePlanet’sremaining 284 facilities last August, which the company attributed to high operating costs, lower returns for recycled materials, and insufficient state fees —despite a $25 million payout in 2018 from CalReycle.

Wieckowski’s Beverage Container Recycling Act of 2020 would have scrapped the program and started over. The bill would have tasked companies and manufacturers that sell beverages to dealers in California with developing a new system and helping to cover the costs. The program would also have included beverages currently excluded from the bottle bill: wine and liquor.

Californians might be able to weigh in themselves. Recology—an employee-owned California recycler —continues to collect signatures for a ballot measure it’s funding. The measure bans polystyrene food containers and takes aim at single-use plastic packaging, containers, and utensils —requiring that manufacturers pay a one-penny tax on these items, sell 25 percent fewer of them, and ensure that what they sell is reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2030.

The tax, according to a financial analysis, would bring in “a few billion dollars annually.” The goal is to help pay for improvements to recycling infrastructure and offset costs, according to Eric Potashner, Recology’s vice president and senior director of strategic affairs.

Early polling suggests the measure could be a popular one; 64 percent of Californians surveyed said they would definitely or probably vote yes, according to a report Potashner shared with CalMatters. “We’re on schedule to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot,” he said. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom nudged the Legislature in January to take action, saying in his budget proposal: “The Administration is committed to working with the Legislature so producers have the responsibility and flexibility to meet recycling requirements for products that ultimately end up in the waste stream.” Newsom said at a budget press conference that he gave recycling a shout-out to show “a desire to move and a deep desire to look at packaging —to look holistically at the whole recycling space.”

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