Anya Poplavska is a Mustang News opinion columnist. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
A year ago, I sat in front of my computer at my environmental policy internship, watching a heated debate unfold in the California Legislature.
The topic at hand was Senate Bill 54 (SB 54), known as the “California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act” — with its twin bill (AB 1080) circulating in the other half of our legislature.
Essentially, this bill would have established a rigid recycling standard for plastic products within the state of California.
It would’ve been the toughest standard ever introduced nation-wide in regards to restrictions on single-use plastic packaging.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that just two weeks ago, this bill — that apparently has been debated, circulated, and edited numerous times since I first heard the heated arguments both for and against it in 2019 — got rejected in our legislature, where it was just shy of four “yes” votes that would’ve passed it.
This was disparaging news, to say the least. But there’s another element to this rejection worth talking about.
If you live in San Luis Obispo County, you’re represented by Representative Jordan Cunningham in the California State Assembly.
Dedicated climate-oriented groups in San Luis Obispo were cognizant of the importance of SB 54/AB 1080 — and they made sure Rep. Cunningham knew of it, too. Specifically, Janine Rands, a dedicated climate activist in San Luis Obispo, worked with multitudes of groups like the Sierra Club, Surfrider, ECOSLO and Climate Reality to assure the success of SB 45.
“There were 64 California cities, and several hundreds of agencies and nonprofits that signed on to support the bill,” Rands said. “I reached out to many individuals as well and we had an email list of 300+ people, with Cunningham’s office receiving well over 100 letters of support and phone calls.”
Even after all these efforts, the voting record for SB 54, found that Rep. Cunningham was labeled as ‘NV’ — meaning that he chose not to be present to vote for this bill.
Rep. Cunningham was nowhere to be found — and no one knew why.
“Cunningham’s office has still not called me or told me why he wouldn’t vote on SB 54. I even phoned until 11:30 or 11:45 p.m. that day,” Rands said. “He did not show up for the vote at 5:15 p.m. and even at 11:30 p.m. he was nowhere to be found. I wrote emails and called copious times with no response.”
The unfortunate failure of SB 54, and the lack of Cunningham’s vote the day of, is compounded by the fact that this bill cannot be heard again for another two years in the legislature — that’s right, two years.
Rands said, “[it’s] shocking because this bill wasn’t even going to take effect until 2032. That’s 12 more years of time to set things in motion so that manufacturers can change the process of their plastic creation. The same kind of plastic waste and trash will continue to be part of our lives, which is heartbreaking. California should be a leader in the movement to change the trajectory of how plastics are manufactured. We are going backward at a rapid pace, with the burgeoning use of plastics from COVID-19.”
All that was needed was four votes to have SB 54 pass. Rep. Cunningham could have been one of those votes.
Our representative should’ve voted yes on this bill.
It’s important to understand what SB 54 was about and what issue it was trying to solve.
Some might argue that the issue of plastics isn’t a priority in the midst of other crises we are facing right now, but this is deeply untrue. The problem with single-use plastics is that they never go away, with no solution or end in sight. In fact, plastic production has exceeded 335 million tons annually, with the United States comprising 30 million tons of this hefty sum.
Although cities used to be able to mitigate the plastic problem by exporting the waste to China, in 2017 China implemented a policy called National Sword, which severely limited the imported plastic it accepted. This completely decimated markets for plastic exportation out of California. The effect of this was that local governments had nowhere to take the plastics, with the cost of this hindrance accumulating to over $420 annually for municipalities statewide.
With China’s National Sword policy causing the buildup of debt and life-long plastics in our landfills, there had to be an urgency to act on this crisis.
However, not everyone shares the same view on how to go about this problem.
This is where SB 54 comes in: the solution the bill provided was setting a standard to require a 75% reduction in single-use packaging in the state of California, mandating that the packaging be crafted so it could instead be reduced, recycled or composted.
Additionally, this bill would set up a multitude of requirements to help monitor the progress being made on these mandates while providing any support necessary to manufacturers who might need it as they re-engineered their packaging.
Those who supported the bill liked the idea that manufacturers would be forced to atone for their actions by finding innovative alternatives to polluting single-use plastics. However, there was opposition to this bill, composed mainly of groups that represent plastic-packaging companies, fossil fuel companies, and manufacturers.
First, the concern of the opposition encompassed the fear that even if the companies were to find ways to recycle certain single-use materials, the markets to take these in might not be available. Second, some of the fines associated with the bill — up to $50,000 for noncompliance — worried them as well.
That being said, it’s worth pointing out the same large packaging groups voicing their concerns over SB 54 also spent more than $3.4 million to lobby California lawmakers against this bill. These numbers prove the vast monetary and political resources these large corporations have — making it harder to believe that companies couldn’t find a way to scale or invest in the technologies necessary when push comes to shove about the plastics problem.
This intensive lobbying should motivate skepticism into some of the ‘nay’ or ‘not present’ votes that were listed that day. With this much money invested in the bill, it begs the question of whether certain representatives voted for the removal of plastic waste or based their decision on the donations in their pocket.
In fact, our very own Rep. Cunningham — who was conveniently absent from the vote the day of — received fossil fuel money as part of his campaign donation money when he re-ran in 2018, according to Rands. By him not showing or voting ‘nay’ on environmental votes like these, “it makes Cunningham not committed to the environmental issues. It’s completely inexcusable when we are a coastal community, where land-based plastics are a serious cause of pollution and affect marine life,” said Rands.
In regards to the worries about market adaptation and fines, Rands countered that “between now and 2032 these companies would have 12 years to work out the technologies and innovations necessary to resolve these issues. As for the $50,000 fine, I support it. We need to stop this problem — if they have to get fined this amount, that should be enough incentive to prevent the pollution and force manufacturers to come up with good solutions.”
Additionally, one of the authors of the bill, Senator Ben Allen, pointed out that “We’ve been working really hard with all the legitimate representatives of industry and business to ensure that we’re giving them the tools they need.”
Allen and his co-author even pushed back implementation of the act by two years and made sure that small businesses — those who qualified by making less than $1 million per year — were exempt from this rule. These actions show the thoughtfulness in policy approach exhibited by those working on the bill, an approach focused on collaboration that has made SB 54 far from a brash legislative decision.
Finally, Allen argued that “If we pass this bill today, tomorrow there will be a new investment to help scale technology that already exists but doesn’t have enough investment. We know the technology exists. It’s not science fiction. It’s a question of creating the incentives to get there.”
Allen’s reasoning echoes the same pattern that was seen with the investment and deployment of solar energy: if policy action and private actors work together, one can signal to another to go ahead to increase investment and shift markets in a new direction. In the past, the ingenuity of the free market has, in the past, worked with policy to stimulate investment. Some large companies have already committed to decreasing waste, showing that is possible and the capability exists like the company SC Johnson who aligned with California’s standard in SB 54.
The arguments against SB 54, in this context, are incorrect to blame the policy actor as messing with the private market or dooming them, since the plastics problem and what to do with it is an endless tug of war. It’s been happening for far too long. Unless some sort of policy is passed to stimulate economic activity, it will continue in a wasteful stalemate.
Even if one could agree with the arguments that Big Oil and Plastics manufacturers are making about the unfairness of the law, it’s clear that there is no other alternative. It is deeply irrational to put the monetary burden on municipalities to deal with the plastics problem when manufacturers knowingly create, buy and sell the harmful product in the first place.
The California Legislature is attempting to work with the private sector to signal a change and to stimulate investment in the right technologies — to argue otherwise would be to continue the harmful status quo by allowing large corporations to govern our public health standards, our landfills and our debt accumulation from plastic waste.
What’s more is the disappointment our community in San Luis Obispo should feel that Rep. Cunningham, an elected official meant to uphold our best interests, has been actively inaccessible on this issue and refused to vote ‘yes’ on a bill so pivotal to our clean future.