California's Plastic Ban Needs More Than Legislation To Be Effective. Here's How.
Savannah Seydel, VP of Sustainability / 5 Minute Read
California, a pioneer in addressing environmental challenges, has taken decisive action against plastic pollution by implementing a series of bans on single-use plastics at the state, county, and local levels. With a population of 39.5 million residents generating nearly 23,000 tons of plastic waste daily, the state's bold measures are a critical step towards reducing pollution and enhancing public health.
The statewide ban on single-use plastics in food service ware targets restaurants, cafes, bars, and institutional food service providers in colleges, universities, hospitals, prisons, and other facilities. This ban is a determined attempt to combat the 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the oceans each year worldwide, much of which originates from single-use plastic items.
Central to these efforts are Assembly Bill 1080 and Senate Bill 54, both enacted in 2020. The bills focus on single-use plastics made from non-recyclable or non-compostable materials and mandate producers to minimize their waste by 75% by 2030. Additionally, specific plastics, such as polystyrene foam and plastic straws, are being phased out entirely.
There is a common misbelief that these products are recycled. In truth, a recent GreenPeace report estimates that a mere 5-6% of U.S. plastics are recycled, that plastics are not fundamentally recyclable, and that recycling is not economical. The report also cites that there are health concerns for both animals and humans associated with the recycling process. This means the best thing we can do is turn off the tap on plastic, which this legislation seeks to do, rather than hope we can recycle our way out of the growing plastic crisis.
"California's leadership on this issue sends a powerful message that we are committed to safeguarding our environment and public health.”
- Laura Meehan, State Director, Environment California
Environmental activists have lauded the state's proactive stance. Jenn Engstrom, CALPIRG's state director, stated, "California's leadership on this issue sends a powerful message that we are committed to safeguarding our environment and public health." Laura Deehan, Environment California's state director, added that the bans "represent a significant step forward in addressing the plastic pollution crisis."
While this legislation is pioneering in many ways, it is also aspirational, and perhaps even severe, in others. While many food operators and consumers have long transitioned from traditional disposable plastics in California, many have not due to packaging pricing and accessibility, and the inability to access proper waste infrastructure to dispose of it. There is and will continue to be a large learning curve within the foodservice industry to meet the legislation’s demands, and fundamental infrastructure necessary to meet its aggressive vision of a plastic-free future in California.
The state must have the right infrastructure in place to properly dispose of non-plastic solutions, which it currently lacks. Compostables are a good alternative, but California needs to develop and implement what is necessary to support them. Without this, the mandates will not be effective. Counties and cities are also in the way – many of which are pushing for the mandates. To move forward with eliminating single-use plastic, we can’t get caught in the little details, particularly when larger issues still widely go unaddressed and unsolved. There are a lot of different parts and players that need to align and work together. Food service operators are not the sole root of the problem.
Although the shift away from single-use plastics may be difficult, it’s not impossible.
Though there has been significant progression of realistic sustainable disposable food service products for operators, further development and innovation is still needed here as well. The lifecycle of these solutions are enormously important, including where and how these plant-based products start and end to help ensure they are sustainable. A bio-based cycle, using natural systems versus extractive systems, is necessary to adhere to better environmental practices. Products also need to be safe and non-toxic, and meet the needs of both food operators and consumers. They must maintain temperature, freshness, quality and crispness, while being leak-proof and capable of supporting a range of demands. The effort to find and create real-world solutions for food service operators to comply with new legislation and meet sustainable demands will be an ongoing process.
To achieve California’s ban on single-use plastic, all of these factors must come together properly. Legislators need to go beyond creating laws and mandates to further necessary infrastructure to process and dispose of sustainable alternatives. These key players, along with food service operators, suppliers and product manufacturers, must all collectively work together and focus on what is necessary today to make a plastic-free future possible. The mishandling of this rollout has enormous potential economic and societal loss. Not just in California alone, but throughout the country. We have an incredible opportunity to make powerful change and be an example. But, we need to be realistic and more importantly, we need to work together.
Despite these challenges, California’s plastic ban is necessary and good. There are a multitude of people and organizations rising to the task. Organizations like Environment Oregon and Environment Washington are offering resources and guidance, while CoPIRG in Colorado is leading businesses to explore and adopt alternatives such as compostable packaging. A number of food service operators are also creating a model and processes that others can follow, and product manufacturers are equally playing a part.
We are creating a new and better path together, one that other states can follow and emulate. Although the shift away from single-use plastics may be difficult, it’s not impossible. The long-term benefits of diminished pollution, improved public health, and a more sustainable future make these efforts more than worthwhile.
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Earth Pulse is an advocacy blog produced by Better Earth. It is intended to help inform and educate about the urgent issues around sustainability, the environment, and social justice, through posts from a variety of authors.