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Sustainability Talks

Digging into Single-use Plastic Legislation in California

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Two bills related to single-use plastics — AB 1276 and AB 962 — have passed the California assembly and are now on Governor Newsom’s desk for consideration.

AB 1276 is designed to reduce plastic pollution from single-use food and beverage accessories by requiring that utensils, straws, stirrers, and condiment packages only be provided upon request by customers. This bill would expand the state’s plastic straws “upon request” law to include other single-use plastic food and beverage accessories for takeout and food delivery items.

AB 962 is meant to pave the way for refillable bottles to be sold in the state and would be a step in moving California toward refillable and reusable systems. The bill would remove the requirement that single-use bottles be crushed for recycling, so that they could instead be washed and refilled by beverage producers.

A coalition of organizations, including Oceana (which is dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans on a global scale), is urging the governor to sign these bills into law. Waste360 recently chatted with Ashley Blacow-Draeger, Oceana’s Pacific Policy and Communications Manager, about how the bills would work, the possible waste reduction that could result from them, and more.

Waste360: Do you have an estimate of how much waste these bills would reduce?

Blacow-Draeger: AB 962 did not establish specific goals associated with switching to reusables; however, it does pave the way for reusable and refillable bottles to be a larger part of the market in California. A report we released last year looked at reusable PET as well as glass bottles used for non-alcoholic beverages and found that a 20% increase in market share of refillable beverage bottles — in place of single-use throwaway PET plastic bottles — could keep up to 13.5 billion PET bottles out of the ocean every year.  

Similarly, there is not a specific number available for how much AB 1276 will reduce the amount of single-use plastic food and beverage ware by going to an “upon request” policy. As a reference point of where we are now, every year in the United States, an estimated 561 billion disposable foodware items are used, resulting in 4.9 million tons of waste. The use of disposable food accessories has contributed to a 250-300% increase in single-use plastics and a 30% increase in waste as a result of increased take out and delivery in response to COVID-19.  

Waste360: Where do the bills stand in the legislative process, and how likely do you see them becoming law?

Blacow-Draeger: Both AB 1276 and AB 962 passed the California legislature and are on the Governor’s desk. Gov. Newsom has until October 10 to sign or veto bills. Given the broad support for these measures, we anticipate the Governor will sign both bills into law.  

Waste360: What is the cost savings estimate for restaurants, if these bills were to pass?

Blacow-Draeger: Restaurants in the U.S. spend $19 billion purchasing disposable foodware items. California restaurants that have voluntarily made the transition to a combination of by request and reusable food ware have been proven to save between $3,000 and $21,000 per year, while reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Food delivery app Postmates reported that they saved over 122 million packs of plastic cutlery from entering the waste stream, equating to a savings of $3.2 million dollars.

Waste360: Is there an education component in this, such as explaining to customers why they need to ask now for things like utensils?

Blacow-Draeger: For on-premises dining, a customer must request single-use plastic foodware accessories. A food facility using a third-party food delivery platform will be required to list on its menu the availability of single-use foodware accessories and standard condiments and only provide those items when requested by the customer. Additionally, food facilities can make unwrapped single-use foodware accessories available to its customers using refillable self-service dispensers that dispense one item at a time. The legislation does not require food facilities to undertake an educational campaign. However, these interactions could provide an opportunity to educate customers on single-use plastics and waste. 

Waste360: How has the "plastic straw by request only" law that this bill would expand been accepted? Is there an estimate on the law's waste reduction effect?

Blacow-Draeger: There is momentum for a statewide law as many municipalities across California have adopted ordinances establishing “upon request” or outright bans on specific single-use plastic food and beverage ware items. In May, Washington’s Governor signed into law legislation that requires opt-in for accessory foodware for take-out food.  

Waste360: Regarding the refillable bill, how would it work?

Blacow-Draeger: Rather than being crushed for recycling, glass CRV bottles can be preserved to be washed and refilled by beverage producers. The bill authorizes CalRecycle—California state’s recycling department—to allow returnable bottles to flow through the state’s Bottle Bill and provide bottle washers the same processing payment that is currently paid to certified recyclers and the same Quality Glass Incentive Payment (QIP) that is currently paid to certified recycling processors. CalRecycle will adopt regulations that establish the requirements and standards that will determine the certifications and operations that processors must follow.  

Waste360: Any concerns about the sanitary conditions of refillable bottles, especially in the COVID-19 Era?

Blacow-Draeger: CalRecycle will establish regulations to ensure bottles are cleaned and sanitized, and we expect the rules to be enforced.  

Waste360: What has been the reaction of beverage makers? They have to add another step to their process, right?

Blacow-Draeger: The following beverage entities registered support for the legislation: Alibi Ale Works, Anheuser-Busch Companies, Bear Republic Brewing Co, Brilliant Elixirs, California Craft Brewers Association, Molson Coors and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. 

Waste360: Has there been any objection from recyclers? They could lose a significant source of material with refillable bottles.

Blacow-Draeger: The bill was supported by the Northern California Recycling Association.

Waste360: This bill could create jobs; do you have an estimate on how many?

Blacow-Draeger: According to Eco-Cycle Solutionsreuse creates as many as 30 times more jobs than landfills. And, according to a 2021 report by Upstream, replacing just 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives offers an opportunity worth at least $10 billion.

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