Fighting Plastic Pollution in California at the Ballot

Groundbreaking voter led ballot initiative to curb single-use plastic pollution impacts on people, wildlife and climate qualifies for November 2022 election

Credit: Sergei Tokmakov via Pixabay

Californians will vote in November 2022 on a ballot initiative to curb single-use plastic pollution impacts on people, wildlife, and climate. It was made official this week and NRDC, along with our partners, will work to ensure successful passage for a cleaner, safer future.

For many years, I have been personally and professionally involved in the fight against plastic pollution across its lifecycle from production to the trash cans to the air, and in favor of a more just and sustainable zero-waste system. I’ve advocated for state and local laws to ban plastic bags and polystyrene foam. I’ve proudly worked for over a decade with local partners like the Teamsters, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and Pacoima Beautiful, to set up a zero waste recycling system for the city of Los Angeles.

In 2013, I worked my heart out to pass AB 521 (which fell short in the first house)—a plastic pollution extended producer responsibility bill that targeted the top 10 plastic products littering the ocean. Since that hard lesson, I’ve supported significant efforts to curb single-use plastic pollution one problematic source at a time, such as straws upon requests, the single use plastic bag ban and a more comprehensive way, such as the most recent “circular economy” package currently moving through the California legislature. Just prior to the pandemic, I took a deep dive in trash by touring Vancouver and Seattle’s renowned recycling systems alongside state legislators and industry leaders.

Now, I am most excited about a groundbreaking voter-led initiative to curb single-use plastic pollution impacts on people, wildlife and climate that just got certified by California’s Secretary of State for the November 2022 ballot. The California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act is an opportunity to increase pressure on the plastics industry to rein in the harmful environmental and health impacts of their single-use products, and to rebuild and support California’s broken recycling system. That’s why I am a proud proponent of this ballot measure, along with Michael Sangiacomo, former CEO of Recology, and Caryl Hart, my fellow California Coastal Commissioner. The California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction ballot measure would direct the state to adopt regulations that would be the most comprehensive in the nation by requiring all single-use plastic packaging and foodware to be recyclable, reusable, refillable, or compostable by 2030. It would also require the total amount of single-use plastic packaging and foodware sold in California to be reduced by no less than 25% by 2030 and levy a new fee on producers of single-use plastic products to help fund recycling, waste reduction, composting and litter cleanup. At least 25 percent of the new revenues must be spent in disadvantaged communities. We’ve all seen the horrible and deadly impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife, marine mammals, turtles, and birds. And, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum predicts that there could be more plastics by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050. We must reduce the amount of harmful plastics littering our communities and making their way into our streams, rivers and oceans, as well as the ever-increasing amount of plastic filling our landfills.

Human beings are also terribly impacted by plastic pollution. In April 2021, a report titled Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Plastic Pollution published by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and AZUL, a leading U.S. based environmental justice and ocean advocacy organization, brought into focus the enormous human social cost and disproportionate impact of the entire life-cycle of plastic pollution on the most vulnerable people around the world. Plastic pollution in the oceans threatens the food chain and livelihood of the millions of people who depend on the marine environment for subsistence. Waste and processing facilities—such as recycling plants, landfills, incinerators and “chemical recycling” facilities—are concentrated in low income and marginalized communities; as are the petrochemical industries that produce plastics. As a result, so is the dirty air, water, and beings that those industries pollute. The waste industry is also one of the most dangerous for laborers, even in a rich country like the U.S. Those most exposed to the hazards of the current “out of sight, out of mind” waste system are immigrants, women, and people of color. Workers and the most vulnerable people must be protected from the harms of our dependence on single-use plastics.

We’re in the midst of a public health and economic crisis due to COVID-19. Reasonable accommodations may be necessary to ensure that grocery workers and the public at large are safe from the spread of the coronavirus until we have the outbreak under control. Yet, the plastics industry is exploiting this crisis and spreading misleading information to try to undo all of the progress we’ve made in California and across the country. The California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act can help our state recover by creating jobs in recycling, composting, sustainable farming and habitat restoration.

We need a plastics-free California now more than ever. The U.S. recycles only 9% of its plastic trash, and plastic packaging (most of which is single-use) represents 40% of total production of plastic products. Furthermore, the production of most single-use plastics is bad for the climate and an ever-growing threat, as 99% of plastics are derived from fossil fuels and their refining is among the most GHG-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector—and the fastest growing. In 2013, NRDC published a shocking report, where we found that, regardless of their size and distance from the ocean, California communities are collectively spending nearly $500 million annually cleaning up litter and preventing it from entering waterways.

California must rebuild its waste and recycling systems in the face of closed foreign markets and the increase in plastic packaging and waste. We must move beyond single-use plastics and our dependence on the petrochemical complex that is driving our species (and most others) into extinction. Reducing plastic production and boosting recycling helps protect wildlife and our communities from the harmful impacts of plastic trash. It also helps maintain California’s momentum in the climate fight and as a global environmental leader.

If the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act is approved by a majority of voters, we’ll get a good head start.

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