California Implements Legislation to Reduce Plastic Pollution and Extend Producer Responsibility Laws

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law on June 30 a bill that aims to drastically cut single-use waste in the Golden State by shifting responsibility from consumers to the industry that produces it.  

The legislation, SB 54 — known also as ‘The Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act’ — will apply to almost every type of plastic packing you might see at a California grocery store or big box outlet.  

Acting as an extended producer responsibility law, SB 54 requires all single-use packaging in the state to be recyclable or compostable by 2032, cutting plastic packaging by 25 percent in 10 years and requiring 65 percent of all single-use plastic packaging to be recycled in the same timeframe. It’s estimated that currently over 90 percent of California’s plastic waste does not get recycled.  

The new legislation did not come about quickly, as it first popped up in 2019 when it was introduced by California Sen. Ben Allen. It’s the culmination of strong bipartisan efforts to create a regulatory system that puts the burden back onto the shoulders of producers that create the single-use trash found throughout California’s waterways, harming its environment. 

Additionally, the legislation aims to raise $5 billion from plastic-industry members over 10 years to assist efforts to cut plastic pollution and support disadvantaged communities hurt most by the damaging effects of plastic waste. 

“Our kids deserve a future free of plastic waste and all its dangerous impacts — everything from clogging our oceans to killing animals; contaminating the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat,” Newsom said. “No more. California won’t tolerate plastic waste that’s filling our waterways and making it harder to breathe. We’re holding polluters responsible and cutting plastics at the source.” 

In particular, SB 54 requires 30 percent of all plastic packaging to be recycled in California by Jan. 2028, 40 percent by Jan. 2030, and at least 65 percent by Jan. 2032.  In addition, SB 54 requires: 

  • A 25 percent source reduction of single-use plastic waste against 2023 levels, meaning that by 2032, industry has to have stopped distributing an amount, by unit count and weight, of plastic equal to 25 percent of the plastic packaging that was distributed in California in 2023; 
  • CalRecycle, which regulates waste management in California, will provide oversight as producers comply with SB 54’s requirements, meaning that all producers of covered materials — (defined by SB 54 as certain single-use packaging and plastic single-use food-service ware) — covered by the law have to join a state-approved producer responsibility organization (PRO) or comply with SB 54’s terms without joining it. Among other things, the PRO will be responsible for annual reporting to CalRecycle and for coming up with and implementing a plan to achieve the law’s targets — (non-member producers would have to do these things themselves). The law also imposes a whopping $50,000/violation/day penalties; and 
  • Producers must pay an annual mitigation fee of $500 million ($5 billion in funds by 2032), which will be used to combat the harmful effects of single-use trash pollution on the environment and human health, with a particular focus on addressing impacts on the environmental justice, disadvantaged, low-income, and rural communities that disproportionately suffer these burdens. 

SB 54 does provide for some limited exemptions from certain covered products, including for medical products, devices, and drugs; infant formula, medical food, and certain supplements; pesticides; dangerous goods and hazardous materials; and long-term packaging for storage with a five-year lifespan. 

SB 54’s passage thrusts California into the ranks of several other states that have enacted similar extended producer responsibility laws. Oregon and Maine created similarly themed extended producer responsibility laws last year, and Colorado enacted one earlier in June 2022. 

As it was intended, SB 54 targets not only manufacturers but also sellers of goods sold in California and will therefore apply to the owners of a brand or trademark under which the product is sold or brought into California by distributors or retailers. 

California’s new law is one of the nation’s most comprehensive plastics-related pieces of legislation to be passed.  

It would not be unexpected if other states and countries follow suit. It would be wise, too, for companies and entities that are potentially subject to SB 54’s requirements to remain up to date on new developments to ensure they are in full compliance with any new requirements enacted.