California takes action to reduce more plastic waste, including grocery bags

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Two months after state legislators passed sweeping legislation intended to reduce plastic waste, they have stepped up to the plate and passed more than half a dozen new bills that will further reduce and clean up California’s waste stream.

If Governor Gavin Newsom signs the bills — and most observers believe he will — going to the grocery store, electronics or general store will fundamentally change for most residents.

“If any of these bills had passed, it would have been huge,” said Nick Lapis, Californian waste advocacy director. “But all that together? It’s unbelievable.”

One high-profile bill will affect the plastic bags in the produce and bulk bins sections of supermarkets. From 2025, such bags must be reusable, recyclable or compostable. It comes six years after California banned single-use checkout bags from supermarkets and retail stores.

Another bill focuses on thermoformed plastics — containers that are heat-moulded. Common thermoformed plastic items include food clamshell containers, plastic trays — such as those with fried chicken — cups, and lids. These items will have to contain a certain percentage – 10% in 2025 and 30% in 2030 – recycled plastic. If they can’t meet these goals, the company that used the plastic to package the item will have to pay an annual fine based on their shortage.

There is a propane canister on the floor. A bill passed by the California legislature would ban the sale of single-use propane cylinders, boosting refillable propane containers.

(Stuart Leavenworth/Los Angeles Times)

Other bills focus on waste generated by batteries, electronics, and bottles of wine and spirits, the mercury found in some fluorescent lights and single-use propane canisters — the bane of campgrounds across the state. The sale of such disposable propane containers would be banned from 2028, giving a boost to refillable containers, which become more widely available.

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Not surprisingly, some of the bills have met opposition. The California trade groups representing apple, strawberry and blueberry growers were unhappy with the thermoform bill.

Together with the California Chamber of Commerce, the Plastics Industry Assn. and the American Chemistry Council, which producer organizations and other food industry associations say the bill is unnecessary given the sweeping plastic legislation the state passed earlier this summer.

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“We now have a situation where producers are subject to two sets of rules and two sets of fees,” an American Chemistry Council spokeswoman said in a statement.

The new legislation also includes a groundbreaking law that will abolish a diversion credit that municipalities now use to manage waste.

The Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 requires cities and municipalities to dispose of at least 50% of their waste from landfills for recycling, composting or some other form of reuse. It also allows them to send up to 10% of that waste to the two solid waste incinerators left in the state: Long Beach’s Southeast Resource Recovery Facility and Covanta Stanislaus, outside Modesto.

The new bill redefines incineration as disposal, potentially reducing the attractiveness of this form of waste disposal to cities and towns.

“I am very pleased that the bill has been approved,” said Whitney Amaya, incinerator organizer for commerce-based East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. “It’s going to redefine incineration as disposal and bring us one step closer to a zero-waste landscape.”

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Amaya has lived near the Long Beach Incinerator since she was six. And while she doesn’t suffer from respiratory ailments like many of her neighbors, she said the pollution of the site can be unbearable.

“There are days when breathing alone is hard and difficult,” she said. “You can feel it when you drive with the windows open. It’s there.”

Finally, there is a bill that focuses on waste generated by human cadavers when they are embalmed or cremated. The bill is modeled after Washington’s Human Body Composting Act and will allow California cemeteries and crematoriums to adopt more environmentally friendly practices, such as decomposition.

“I’ve always hated the idea that my last act on this world would be to either pollute the air or be pumped full of toxic chemicals and buried in a vault with a huge carbon footprint,” Lapis said. “The option to have your body composted after death gives you one last chance to leave the world better than you found it.”