California Laws Could Increase Plastics Recycling and Jobs

Recycling symbol
California leads the nation in recycling.

Jerry Brown, California’s governor, has signed legislation aimed at increasing the state’s overall recycling to 75% and increasing the number of plastics recycling-related jobs in the state by keeping more recyclable material from heading overseas.

Mike Verespej, Washington, D.C., correspondent for Plastics News, describes the significance of the bills:

Brown signed into law Oct. 6 Assembly Bill [1149], which will continue the state’s annual plastic market development incentives of $10 million to $20 million to processors and manufacturers of recycled plastics through Jan 1, 2017. The incentives would have expired in January without the bill’s passage.

In addition, Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 341, which sets a goal of source reducing, recycling, or composting 75 percent of waste in the state by 2012. Equally as important, it requires virtually every commercial business, institution and apartment building in the state to implement recycling programs.

That’s significant because while California today diverts 58 percent of its waste, its large office buildings only divert 7 percent of their waste, and smaller businesses less than that. AB 341 requires that all commercial or public entities that generate more than four cubic yards of commercial solid waste per week offer or arrange for recycling services, on and after July 1, 2012.

Dave Downey reports for the North County Times that the new recycling laws faced some opposition. For example, some people are concerned that the goal of 75% is unrealistic; however, California’s current statewide recycling rate is 65%.

California’s high recycling rate stems from a 1989 law that threatened municipalities with $10,000-per-day fines for not diverting at least half of their waste away from landfills, explains Justin Scheck in The Wall Street Journal. A state recycling board spokesman told Scheck that the 1989 measure was controversial when it started and took years to get municipalities to follow, but it worked.

Now, approximately 80% of the 500 million pounds of plastic beverage containers that Californians collect for recycling are shipped overseas for processing. Mark Murray is executive director of Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit environmental group in Sacramento that advocates waste reduction and recycling policies and programs. He told Verespej:

We dutifully clean up and collect billions of used soda and water bottles and ship them off to China at a loss. They add labor and value [by] processing them into the polyester clothing and accessories that they sell back to us at Target and Banana Republic.

California has successfully created thousands of recycling jobs over the past 20 years. Increasing recycling rates — as well as keeping the material in California for reprocessing — could bring thousands more jobs.

Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, who co-sponsored the AB 1149 and chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee that oversees all natural resource agencies in the state, told Plastics News, “When we ship used soda and water bottles to China, we are exporting thousands of jobs overseas that could just as readily exist in California if the appropriate investments were set up to support it.”

Source: “Calif. laws expected to boost plastics recycling,” Plastics News, 10/7/11
Source: “California aims to recycle 75 percent of waste,” North County Times, 10/8/11
Source: “Cities Struggle With Recycling Goals,” The Wall Street Journal, 9/29/11
Image by Steve Snodgrass, used under its Creative Commons license.

Rachel Petkewich is a freelance science writer and editor. She has worked as a research scientist in the chemical industry and spent eight years as a staff writer and editor at various science journals and magazines, including Chemical & Engineering News.