A New Recycling Paradigm

“Living is easy with eyes closed.” John Lennon wasn’t talking “trash” when he said this, but the quote fairly describes how California approached recycling for decades.

In the early 1990s, several California communities pioneered “single-stream” recycling to simplify and encourage more household participation in the recycling system. Subsequently, large and small municipalities across the United States began single-stream programs of their own.

The thought was that single-stream recycling meant households no longer had to painstakingly separate every material type, which was laborious and led to less participation.

Instead, consumers could simply throw all their recyclables—whether it’s paper, plastic, glass or metal— into a single bin, drag it to the street, and have it emptied each week. Who knew saving the planet could be this easy?

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

While single-stream recycling programs increased household participation in the recycling system, it came with some significant unintended consequences, one of which was contamination. And lots of it. Today, the average contamination rate among communities and businesses hovers around 25%. With roughly 1 in 4 items placed in recycling bins not actually recyclable, contamination has reshaped the international recycling market and created serious financial and environmental issues here in California.

For decades, California operated just fine under its current recycling regime. Even with its large and sprawling populations with high consumption and contamination rates, international markets continued to purchase the bulk of California’s recyclables.

The state historically exported between one-third and two-thirds of all its curbside recyclables. The export of recyclable materials became the key component of California’s recycling infrastructure, allowing California to forgo developing domestic recycling infrastructure necessary to process its own recyclables. Local jurisdictions profited by selling curbside recyclables and recycling remained easy for consumers.

But in 2017, China shocked much of the western world by announcing a new policy called “National Sword” that banned all imports of 24 categories of recyclables, including low grade plastics and unsorted mixed paper, and set strict 0.5% contamination standards for allowable bales of recyclable material. China’s National Sword policy substantially disrupted global markets and exposed California’s fragile and undeveloped recycling system.

The key component of California’s recycling infrastructure, China, effectively closed its doors. The value of recyclable materials shortly thereafter crashed and local jurisdictions started having to pay, instead of being paid, to now dispose of otherwise recyclable materials.

Today, California is scrambling to quickly revamp its entire recycling system as international end markets for once valuable recyclables dried up and values collapsed. Senate Bill 54 (Allen) and Assembly Bill 1080 (Gonzalez), two identical bills titled “the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act,” currently sit inactive in the California Legislature but could become active at any time this legislative session.

These bills have a stated goal of reducing the proliferation of all single-use packaging and some single-use products in the natural environment by mandating that all single-use packaging and some single-use products be recyclable and compostable, be source reduced to the maximum extent feasible, and achieve unprecedented 75% recycling rates by 2030.

Unequivocally, the stated goals of both bills are laudable but unachievable without further amendments addressing major deficiencies such as inadequate in-state recycling and composting infrastructure, high contamination rates and statewide standardization, to name a few.

According to the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), California needs at least 300 percent more facilities in order to be able to process the paper, plastic and glass necessary to achieve the state’s 75% waste reduction goals. This likely underestimates the domestic infrastructure deficit because that figure predates China’s National Sword policy.

Sufficient domestic recycling and composting infrastructure, not to mention addressing consumer behavior and contamination rates, will be critical for manufacturers to even have a chance at meeting the 75% recycling requirement.

Without amendments creating a pathway for compliance, the bills’ steep fines of up to $50,000 per violation per day with no caps, an amount twice the penalty for a major oil spill, and requiring retailers to pull products from shelves for noncompliance, will negatively impact consumers as products become more expensive or disappear entirely from store shelves.

Packaging serves several functions in modern economies beyond merely distinguishing one brand from its competitors. Packaging protects products from damage, extends product shelf life, provides more efficient means to move goods through the economy, provides sterility for medicines and allows companies to communicate directly with and provide important product information to customers.

While packaging provides several critical functions in the market economy, when otherwise recyclable or compostable packaging is not properly disposed of, it becomes waste or pollution that could harm the natural environment. Manufacturers have a responsibility to minimize waste, place only recyclable and compostable products into the marketplace and support a working recycling system.

The era of “easy” recycling, at least as we knew it, is likely over. A paradigm shift is underway that will determine whether a better system emerges allowing economies and environments to thrive.

Let’s make sure to get it right.

Staff Contact: Adam Regele

Adam Regele joined the CalChamber in April 2018 as a policy advocate specializing in environmental policy, housing and land use, and product regulation issues. He was named a senior policy advocate in April 2021, and promoted to vice president of advocacy and strategic partnerships in March 2023. He came to the CalChamber after practicing law at Oakland-based Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson, PLC, where he advised private and public clients on complex projects involving land use and environmental laws and regulations at the local, state and federal levels. Before entering private practice, Regele served as a federal judicial law clerk to the Honorable Edward J. Davila of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California. Regele earned a B.S. in environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from UC Hastings College of Law, where he was symposium editor and research and development editor for the Hastings West-Northwest Journal. See full bio.