Whack-a-Waste: California’s Evolving Laws on Refuse

In California’s ongoing battle against single-use plastics, efforts to eradicate plastic bags have been a game of Whack-a-Mole. Just as one type of disposable bag is banned, another emerges in its place, challenging legislators and environmental advocates to keep pace with the ever-evolving landscape of plastic pollution. This relentless cycle mirrors the arcade game’s ceaseless challenge, where hitting one target only prompts another to pop up, underscoring the complexity and persistence required to achieve lasting change.

The Original Plastic Bag Ban: 2014 SB 270 (Padilla, de León, Lara)


This is the bill that would become California’s original law banning single-use plastic bags, the first in the nation. Plastic bag manufacturers lobbied against the law when it passed, forcing a 2016 referendum that voters also approved. The day after the referendum finally passed, the bag ban took effect.


The law has not worked out the way anyone had hoped (except for plastic bag manufacturers, perhaps). In place of the old, thin, low-density polyethylene bags, SB 270 still allowed the purchase of thicker, high-density polyethylene bags for 10 cents. These HDPE bags are touted as “reusable”; most customers don’t reuse them, though. They still generally end up in landfills, even when returned to recycling bins located in stores. The slightly heavier weight per bag adds up to more pounds of plastic bags per person entering landfills: 11 lbs. per person in 2021 vs. 8 lbs. per person in 2004.


An Attempt To Fix the Bag Ban


SB 1053 (Blakespear, Allen) and AB 2236 (Bauer-Kahan) attempt to close loopholes to rectify the bag ban. These bills would amend the law to require paper, cloth, or textile bags and ban plastic film. Bag bans in cities and counties in California have historically worked as long as they ban all plastic bags, including ones that are supposed to be “reusable”. Hopefully, these 2024 bills will fix the issue with plastic shopping bags, but there are still countless other single-use plastics to be dealt with.


2022 SB 54 (Allen)


Let’s check on developments with 2022 SB 54, Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act. To review, SB 54 was authored by Senator Ben Allen (who also co-authored SB 1053), was passed and signed into law by Governor Newsom in 2022. It imposes minimum content requirements for single-use packaging and plastic food service ware, to be achieved through an extended producer responsibility (EPR) program. 


The EPR for SB 54 is based around a shift of the single-use plastic pollution burden from consumers to manufacturers. SB 54’s method of accomplishing this is by assigning a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO), a nonprofit organization that monitors participation in the program, including collecting fees and tracking recycling efforts. The PRO for SB 54 is Circular Action Alliance (CAA). CAA also collects the $5 billion over 10 years which the law mandates to address the effects of plastic pollution and to aid affected the environmental justice communities most impacted by the damaging effects of single-use plastic waste.


As with the original, failed version of the bag ban, plastic producers are likely to use every loophole conceivable to avoid responsibility. We environmental advocates must be vigilant and persistent in making sure SB 54 works as intended. Specifically, by 2032, 


  • 100% of single-use packaging and plastic food service ware sold in the state is recyclable or compostable;

  • 65% of single-use plastic packaging and food service ware is recycled;

  • 25% less single-use plastic packaging and food service ware is sold.


2016 SB 1383 (Lara)


This is another law that can foreseeably require vigilance; it doesn’t concern plastic pollution, but rather carbon emissions. Senate Bill 1383, California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Act, was sponsored by Senator Ricardo Lara (now the state’s Insurance Commissioner), was passed and signed into law by then-Governor Jerry Brown in 2016. The law’s provisions took effect in 2022; it aims to limit the amount of organic waste disposed of in conventional landfills. Currently about 50% of waste in our state’s landfills is organic. Organic materials release methane; landfills release a fifth of methane emissions in California. Methane is a greenhouse gas 84× more potent than CO₂; landfills are the 3rd biggest source of methane in California and also release PM2.5, a class of very fine particulate matter that’s tracked as a health hazard.


In order to divert organic waste from landfills, SB 1383 takes the bold step of mandating organic waste collection throughout the state. This is typically done by source separation: splitting waste into the gray, green, and blue bins that most of us are familiar with. This is not required; the law attempts to be agnostic and thus allows 2-bin systems or even just a single bin, which can be separated at the processing facility, though arguably at a higher cost. Usually mixed waste like this is processed by anaerobic digestion after going through an extruder press; for example, an Anaergia OREX press. The output is compost that can be used as fertilizer and green energy, usually biogas.


Why Have Results Been Slow?


SB 1383 targeted a 2020 goal of reducing the organic waste disposed in landfills by 50% below a 2014 baseline level and a 2025 goal of a 75% reduction below the same baseline. The state failed to meet the first target and many consider it unlikely to meet the second next year. Why? The simple reason is the COVID pandemic. We all had our lives disrupted by the pandemic, and the jurisdictions that oversee waste disposal were delayed in enforcement of the state’s goals. Furthermore, restaurants experienced increased demand for takeout meals, which in turn increased demand for takeout packaging, mostly cardboard and the like, which generates more organic waste.


There are additional reasons: the CEO of a large compost company calls the permitting environment for new commercial compost centers a “minefield”, and in his opinion, the agencies that oversee water, air, land use, and local planning can be woefully out of sync.


Whack Those Moles!


The failed original bag ban and the COVID pandemic setting back composting plans have doubtlessly delayed effective legislation. Considering the fact that the year 2050 is fast approaching, for which the Paris Agreement set a goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2ºC, there is no time to lose in making sure these laws work as intended. But we must keep our Whack-a-Mole prowess sharp!