California Could be First State to Phase Out Single-Use Plastics

LOS ANGELES – First, California taxed plastic bags. Then it curbed plastic straws. Now a group of legislators wants to completely phase out single-use plastics.

“It’s time to get serious about this,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), who is spearheading legislation targeting the use of plastics along with Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica).

If passed, those bills would require the state to reduce or recycle 75 percent of single-use plastic packaging and products by 2030. In addition, manufacturers would be required to ensure that all packaging sold or distributed in California is recyclable or compostable by 2030.

Why now? Gonzalez Fletcher cited the mounting impacts of plastic waste on environmental and human health, and the loss of Asian markets for recycled plastic material.

“We have a crisis coming and we know it,” she said.

Allen also noted mounting public health concerns as studies find tiny plastic particles, called microplastics, in food, soil and drinking water.

By the Numbers

Scientists estimate that 19 billion pounds of plastic waste end up in the ocean each year, severely impacting sea and bird life. If plastic production and disposal continue at the current rate, by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish, according to the World Economic Forum.

Historically at least one-third of California’s recyclable material was exported to overseas markets, mostly to China, according to the state’s recycling authority, CalRecycle. But China stopped accepting most material in 2017, leaving municipalities scrambling to deal with mounting waste.

Less than 15 percent of single-use plastic is recycled in California, according to Californians Against Waste. The non-profit advocacy group, which helped to craft the new legislation, notes that the value of scrap plastic is less than the cost of recycling it.

“The sad truth is,” Sen. Allen said, “that so much of what we throw into (recycling) bins is not getting recycled.”

While the proposed legislation would require CalRecycle to set goals and guidelines for eliminating single-use plastic, many of the details have yet to be worked out.

Getting it Done

One inspiration? Rules put in place last year by the European Union. There, plastic-based products with readily-available alternatives, including cotton swabs, straws and drink stirrers, will be phased out completely. The EU policy also sets high goals for recycling items like plastic bottles.

Plastic garbage lying on the Aegean sea beach near Athens, Greece in 2018. The Mediterranean is one of the seas with the highest levels of plastic pollution in the world. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

Under pressure from consumers and environmental groups, some manufacturers and companies, including Trader Joe’s, are setting their own goals for phasing out avoidable plastic. Recently, a group of major companies announced a pilot project that will allow consumers to purchase items like shampoo, orange juice and ice cream online and then return the packaging to be refilled.

Representatives of plastics industry groups were cautiously supportive of the goals of the proposed California legislation, but said they were awaiting the details. Tim Shestek, senior director for state affairs at the American Chemistry Council, said in an email that the proposal’s goal of phasing out plastic waste “is consistent with the goals we set last year that 100% of plastics packaging is re-used, recycled or recovered by 2040 and that 100% of plastics packaging is recyclable or recoverable by 2030.”

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Scott DeFife, vice-president of government affairs for the Plastic Industries Association also said his group shares the goal of increased plastic recycling and recovery. But he said part of the reason for current, low recycling rates lies with the waste management system and consumers’ access to recycling.

“Obviously, the material ending up in the environment is the worst case scenario and none of us want to see that,” DeFife said. “As an industry we’re working on … how we can recover the material better, how it can be recycled better, but also end markets for the use of recycled material.”

The Allen-Gonzalez plastic waste legislation is supported by numerous environmental groups, including the L.A.-based 5 Gyres Institute, Surfrider Foundation and Californians Against Waste.

Support from Environmentalists

Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, applauded the bill for its ambitious goals. He said consumers shouldn’t be held responsible for packaging waste.

“The thrust of this legislation is to make the producers responsible for creating a circular economy when it comes to plastic packaging,” he said. He noted that glass, aluminum and paper have much higher recycling rates, overall, than plastic. “If [plastic] is going to continue to exist, it’s going to have to demonstrate the kind of closed loop recycling capabilities as other materials that we generate.”

You can follow the path of the bill, SB-54, here.

Move over, single-use plastics: Arizona company makes Earth-friendly replacements

GILBERT – From meat trays to mac-and-cheese cups, single-use plastics pack the grocery-store aisles and usually end up in landfills. Now, an Arizona company is on a mission to replace them with biodegradable and compostable products over the next five years.

“We had the vision that the whole world was going to demand alternatives to plastic,” said Troy Swope, founder and CEO of Footprint.

The trick is inventing a material that’s as convenient and useful as plastic.

Mushroom container prototypes made of molded biodegradable fibers are stacked and prepared for shipment to Walmart at Footprint’s facility in Gilbert. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

Swope, who’s passionate about overcoming obstacles through innovation, and his business partners created Footprint in 2012. The company’s leaders used to work for Intel before putting their technology and innovation skills to work to start their own company.

They now produce packaging for big companies, including Walmart, Costco, Tyson Foods and Kraft.

The company does have competitors, such as Be Green Packaging in South Carolina, but most of these companies are focused on simple solutions to single-use plastics, such as takeout containers. Footprint is working on technology to tackle more difficult plastics, like frozen-food containers and meat trays.

They do this in their manufacturing facility in Gilbert, which recently relocated to a new industrial park. Much of the manufacturing space is empty, but the company, which currently employees 650 people, plans to expand over the next several years, and add 250 workers.

Stacked up along the walls of the production floor are bales of corrugated paper – cardboard – the first step in creating biodegradable products. The paper is ground up and mixed with various solutions, depending on the product, before going through heating machines that mold the material at 338 degrees.

Corrugated fiberboard is stacked before being used to form biodegradable molded-fiber packaging at Footprint. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

The products are made from a slurry. Different coatings are added to the mixture to create barriers against moisture, oxygen and oil, which is needed for food products to maintain shelf life while in storage.

This year, Footprint began producing paper straws, and it plans to increase straw production by the end of the year. They’re working to find the perfect paper and adhesive combination to make a long-lasting straw.

“The most difficult part is the customers want biodegradability and compostability, yet they still want the product to behave like plastic,” said Yoke Chung, chief technology officer of Footprint.

The science behind the products is important, and so is the company’s environmental impact. It says carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 40 to 60 percent depending on the type of plastic the Footprint materials are replacing. The company also says energy use drops as much as 50 percent.

“If you start looking at plastic’s true cost,” Swope said, “like the cost to haul it away and store it for 100 and some years, then we’re way lower cost than plastic.”

Mick Dalrymple, director of university sustainability initiatives at Arizona State University, recently toured Footprint. The company has a big, but not impossible, goal, he said.

“It’s a matter of how fast can they scale up. How can they fend off any competitors, and then also things like how can they avoid manufacturers that want to make exclusives with them,” Dalrymple said.

In five years, Footprint has invented more than 400 items, patenting at least three dozen of those items, including containers for produce.

“We want you to walk into a grocery store today, and you see all the plastic, and in five years, you’re going to walk into that grocery store and go, we changed this whole store – the bakery, the meat trays, the yogurt containers, right, the coffee lid on the way out – we’re going to transform that grocery store and it’s going to happen fast,” Swope said.

Footprint plans to increase production in the United States and expand into Mexico and Europe over the next few years.

– Video by Bryce Newberry/Cronkite News