What California’s ballot fight over single-use plastics could mean to the environment and the rest of us
Ballot initiative would reduce packaging, bar single-use food ware unless it’s recyclable, but industry is opposed
California voters in November will decide if they want to ban single-use plastics and polystyrene food containers. And it’s heating into a battle that may line industry lobbyists behind a bill they once found repugnant but hope will cancel the ballot measure.
The California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, if passed by voters, would mandate that all single-use plastic packaging and foodware, such as disposable spoons and forks, be recyclable, reusable, refillable or compostable. It would also mandate that single-use plastic production be reduced by a quarter — both by 2030, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Susanne Rust.
After years of seeing legislation with similar goals fail, the ballot measure’s proponents decided to take it straight to voters. Now lobbyists who fought against legislation are joining efforts to craft a bill that would convince those behind the ballot measure to drop it before the vote.
The Nature Conservancy says 11 million tons of plastics find their way into the ocean each year — and that plastic has also shown up in drinking water, rain and in humans. In California, “you are eating and breathing plastic every day,” the group says.
Its Stand Up to Plastic campaign says half of all plastic produced today is single-use.
The Oceana Plastic Pollution Survey of California’s registered voters found that 58% are very concerned about plastic pollution and the impact on the environment and oceans, while 34% are somewhat concerned. And nearly two-thirds (64%) of the registered voters said they are very concerned about single-use plastic products, while 28% are somewhat concerned. The vast majority said they want to know the products they buy don't hurt ocean animals.
Rust found that “businesses and trade groups that produce or distribute single-use plastic items, however, are overwhelmingly opposed” to the ballot initiative.
“The way the law is written gives unfettered authority to CalRecycle to tax other recyclable products including glass, cardboard, etc., to meet the goals of the ballot measure,” Michael Bustamante, spokesman for the “No on Plastics Tax” campaign told the LA Times. The group has produced a list of 51 items that would be subject to the fee, assessed at almost a penny an item.
If the California legislature by late June passes a law that meets their approval, those pushing the ballot initiative could withdraw it. So opponents find themselves backing a bill that has twice been defeated in part because they lobbied against it. Some are now working with lawmakers to craft a version both sides could embrace.
Californians aren’t the only ones considering the impact of plastic.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act before Congress sets requirements and incentives to decrease how much plastic is produced and bolsters efforts “to collect, recycle, or compost products and materials.” Some of the costs would be borne by the producers of the products, including food service products, single-use products and plastic packaging.
The Seattle Times recently reported that “only 9% of all plastic waste ever generated has been recycled. It’s in our rivers, oceans and bodies. As plastic breaks up into increasingly smaller pieces, it becomes microplastics and nanoplastics, invisible to the naked eye. Salmon — a cornerstone species in the Salish Sea — and aquatic life eat plastic, mistaking it for phytoplankton. These salmon are eaten by our resident orcas, eagles and us. A recent study by the University of Newcastle, Australia, estimates the average person may ingest the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastic particles every week.”
The article also noted inequality in the harm produced. Low-income and communities of color are among the most impacted by plastic pollution.
But not everyone sees the benefit-harm balance the same. In a guest editorial in the Examiner-Enterprise in early April, Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, called that bill “radical legislation” and said it would do “unprecedented damage to consumer choice and would stifle recycling technology innovation by American businesses.”