CA Addressed Plastic Waste; Now We Need Action on Toxics in Plastics

Last year, California made large strides towards addressing the pressing problem of proliferating plastic waste. But the Ohio train derailment shows why we also need action on toxics in plastics. 

An aerial view of fire and smoke rising from the site of a freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023.


Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

California’s SB 54 was a big step forward on plastics last year—it addressed our ever-growing piles of plastic waste and the fact that very, very little (less than 9% according to estimates) was getting recycled. Negotiated between industry, environmental advocates, and legislators, it represented significant progress on addressing waste and making the companies that generate waste responsible for dealing with it. BUT . . . it did not address another important dimension of the plastics crisis we face—toxic chemicals. That’s where Assemblymember Rivas’ AB 1290 comes in. It would phase out a number of unnecessary and problematic plastics in packaging, particularly those associated with health harms. 

A recent New York Times front page article showcases exactly why AB 1290 is needed. The production, distribution, use, and post-use management of plastic is associated with a host of toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, the toxic chemical involved in the train derailment that is used to make PVC plastic and that created dangerous exposures for nearby communities. Another group of toxic chemicals used in plastic (among many other uses) that are getting a lot of attention these days are toxic, “forever” PFAS chemicals. The federal government is acting to regulate even very low levels of PFAS in drinking water, and states including California have been moving aggressively to turn off the tap on these harmful chemicals which stick around in the environment and are found in virtually all our bodies. PFAS are associated with myriad health effects from cancer to interference with vaccine uptake to adverse developmental effects. Many other toxic chemicals are also used in plastics. As the New York Times story notes, just one indicator of the potential hazards of the explosive growth of plastics is that “rail shipments of chemicals used in plastic production grew by about a third over the past decade,” which increases the risks from spills and accidents in transit. But it’s an even bigger concern for people living near chemical plants where these cargos originate, and especially for “people of color who are overrepresented in communities near such plants.” (For more on this topic, see this very informative blog by our colleagues following the Ohio disaster.) 



What’s especially galling is that many of these chemicals and plastics are unnecessary and are creating needless exposures for workers, communities, and consumers. An industry and NGO collaboration produced a list of “problematic and unnecessary” plastics that are either associated with health harms or make recycling more difficult and that are targeted for phase out by 2025. Recognizing that some of the items on the list, like polystyrene plastic, were covered by SB 54, AB 1290 does not try to take on the full list. Instead, it focuses on problematic plastics that were not directly addressed by SB 54, such as those that are toxic, specifically plastic packaging containing PVC, PFAS, and carbon black, a carcinogen which can harm workers. It also covers a small number of plastics that interfere with the limited recycling for plastic that we do currently have and that were not clearly addressed by SB 54. Among them are “oxodegradable plastics,” which consist of fossil fuel-derived plastic combined with small amounts of plant-based materials; if and when the plant-based binders do degrade, these products break down into smaller pieces of non-degradable fossil fuel-derived plastic, contributing to microplastic pollution, which is associated with numerous health and environmental impacts.  

The opposition to AB 1290 hasn’t really made a case for why the plastic packaging phased out by AB 1290 is needed. Nor could it, since there is widespread agreement that these plastic polymers and additives are unnecessary and that preferable alternatives exist. The opposition continues to showcase the plastic and petrochemical industries’ devotion to their bottom lines over our health and well-being. 

NRDC is proud to co-sponsor AB 1290 with Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Californians Against Waste, and Clean Water Action. Fortunately, the bill moved through the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on April 18. We are optimistic that the legislature will build on its progress on plastic waste last year by acting on toxics in plastics as well. 

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