California passes first sweeping US law to reduce single-use plastic

California has passed an ambitious law to significantly reduce single-use plastics, becoming the first state in the US to approve such sweeping restrictions.

Under the new law, which California governor Gavin Newsom signed Thursday afternoon, the state will have to ensure a 25% drop in single-use plastic by 2032. It also requires that at least 30% of plastic items sold or bought in California are recyclable by 2028, and establishes a plastic pollution mitigation fund.

“It’s time for California to lead the nation and world in curbing the plastic crisis. Our planet cannot wait,” said Ben Allen, the state senator who introduced the legislation.

The passage of the bill came just before a deadline to remove an initiative aimed at reducing single-use plastics from the November ballot.

Negotiations on the bill have been under way for six months with a team working to craft a proposal that ensured the economic responsibility fell to plastic producers and used language that satisfied the demands of all involved from those in the industry to environmentalists, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The law will establish a producer responsibility organization, comprised of industry representatives, to run a recycling program overseen by the state. The organization will also be responsible for $500m a year in support for a new plastic pollution mitigation fund to look at the environmental and health impacts of plastics.

The state will also be required to reduce expanded polystyrene, which is commonly used in food containers, 25% by 2023, a goal experts say will be all but impossible to reach as so little of the material is currently recycled.

“It’s a de facto ban,” Jay Ziegler with the Nature Conservancy told the Times.

The material will be banned entirely if producers are unable to meet the required recycling rates, which grow every few years until the state requires that 65% of polystyrene be recycled by 2032.

Further, by 2032, 65% of all plastic items sold or distributed in California must be recyclable.

Any entity that fails to comply with the new law could face fines of up to $50,000 a day.

California has led the nation in single-use plastic restrictions, banning plastic bags, discouraging the use of plastic straws and utensils, and working to crack down on microplastics.

The pandemic increased the demand for single-use plastic and for a time stalled the fight against plastic waste. Amid concerns about the spread of Covid-19, California briefly suspended its ban on plastic bags and some local governments prevented shoppers from bringing reusable bags in stores.

Still, the state has been a leader in efforts to tackle the scourge of plastic waste. In October, Newsom signed a package of legislation aimed to tackling plastic pollution, saying the state was working to “reduce the waste filling our landfills and generating harmful pollutants driving the climate crisis”. Earlier this year, the state’s attorney general subpoenaed ExxonMobil as part of an inquiry into fossil fuel companies examining their role in the global plastic pollution crisis.

The US is the world’s biggest plastic polluter. Less than 10% of all plastic sold in the US each year is recycled. Instead, a significant portion ends up in landfills and millions of tons of plastic ends up in the ocean. California spends $500m each year to remove plastic pollution from its waterways and beaches.

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