California lawmakers appear poised to pass legislation that could dramatically alter the way produce is packed in the state within 10 years.
The California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act — Senate Bill 54 and companion legislation Assembly Bill 1080 — would require massive investment in California’s recycling infrastructure and mandate changes to the way produce is packed, said Kevin Kelly, CEO of Emerald Packing, Union City, Calif.
Kelly said he has been involved in packaging issues for 25 years in California, beginning with the first bans of grocery carry-out sacks.
The legislation now being considered for passage in California would by 2030 largely ban all single-use packaging that isn’t recycled. The distinction is “recycled,” not “recyclable,” Kelly said.
The bill would require regulations to “achieve and maintain” by Jan. 1, 2030, a 75% reduction statewide of the waste generated from single-use packaging and priority single-use products offered for sale, sold, distributed, or imported in or into the state through source reduction, recycling, or composting.
“This hits the produce industry right in the jaw because of course you have all the field-pack packaging, the romaine bags, the iceberg lettuce bags, cauliflower bags, and then you have all the processed produce packaging, the salads, baby carrot, and what not,” Kelly said.
Some of those produce packaging materials — such as a baby carrot bag — are feasible to recycle because they are “straight up” polyethylene single material that can go through a recycling process.
On the other hand, plastic used in salad bags to extend shelf life cannot be recycled, because the plastic is made of two materials — typically polyethylene and polypropylene — combined with adhesive.
Based on the way the law is written, all salad packing as it exists now would be gone because it could not be recycled, Kelly said.
“Frankly the produce industry has not woken up to the implications of this law,” he said.
The legislation came within a few votes of passing last year and appears to have the necessary support in an election year to become law, he said.
While some farm groups are lobbying for changes in the legislation to account for provisions for field packing, it is unclear if those changes will be incorporated to the law, Kelly said.
“The governor has made it very clear he wants (the legislation) on his desk within three weeks,” Kelly said in early February.
The law, if passed as written, will require reinvention of almost all salad packaging and also massive investment in recycling systems to handle flexible plastic bags.
“At this point, California’s recycling system — really no recycling system in the United States — is set up to handle (flexible plastic bags),” he said.
Special equipment is needed to handle flimsy plastic bags since they tend to gum up recycling systems.
“In 10 years, we would have to reinvent the entire recycling system in California and reinvent packaging in order to make what we have today recycled to meet a 70% recycled rate,” he said.
Today, Kelly said a lot of companies say their packaging is “recycle ready.”
“Under this law, that is BS; you will have to recycle it,” he said.
Kelly said Emerald Packing sells its waste plastic at its facility to Trex Decking for that company to create a type of hybrid wood plastic decking materials.
It is difficult to take plastic and rigid clamshell packaging and make it back into packaging, he said, and few companies do it today.
“It’s really difficult to wash it, and then you can make it back into plastic, but building out facilities that can actually do that would probably take 20 or 30 years to handle all the plastic in the U.S., let alone the plastic in California,” he said.
About 60% of what is put in recycling bins, even in California, winds up in landfills for various reasons.
Fixing the current recycling system in California would take about $20 billion, and probably at least that much to effectively recycle produce bags, he estimated.
Rigid clamshell containers can be recycled, but most of them have labels that cannot be easily washed off and thus cannot be recycled. One solution is to put a film lid on the clamshell, which keeps the clamshell clean and more easily recycled.
Some clamshells are starting to come with labels that can be washed off, but Kelly said washing off those clamshells requires water and chemicals to remove the labels.
“Two things that the state of California doesn’t like — they don’t like to give up water because we’re entering another drought, and they don’t like chemicals in the water,” he said.
“It is a hard road, but not as tough as (bagged) salad packaging.”
Kelly said there is only one facility in California that turns clamshell plastic back into plastic pellets that can be used to create new packaging.
“Demand for post-consumer recycled resin is strong right now, and prices for the resin has gone up in the last four months from 71 cents a pound to $1.30 per pound,” he said.
“It has doubled because everybody’s waking up to you and wanting consumer recycled resin into their product.”
“The one-pound clamshell bowl of spinach probably has a more successful chance of still being around in 10 years than a one-pound (bag) of Italian salad,” he said.
Bio-based plastics — typically made from corn, sugar or cellulose — don’t have the supply capacity to replace plastics made from petrochemicals.
Expanding capacity of bio-based plastics would take two to three generations to equal the scale of petrochemical plants, he said, noting that plastic resin is a byproduct of cracking natural gas.
“Everybody wants to talk about bio plastics, but very few companies want to pay the price for a bio-based material, which is literally right now 10 times more expensive in raw material form than petrochemical-based plastics,” he said. “Try to sell that price increase to Walmart; they just won’t take it,” he said.
What’s more, bio-based plastics can meet the D6400 compostable standard, which requires that the material be degraded to 81% of its dry weight in 90 days.
However, most industrial compost turns in 40 days and those facilities don’t want bio-based plastics because they don’t compost fast enough, Kelly said.
Paper-based packaging is recyclable but has the disadvantage of not working with wet produce.
“Getting people to recycle (paper) is probably a bit easier than trying to figure out how to recycle plastics,” he said.
“Wet product and paper is a problem, and of course the paper can’t be poly-coated to protect it against wetness because then it’s not recyclable,” he said.
Kelly said California’s legislation is too ambitious.
“If they gave us until 2040, I think maybe we would have a shot at it,” he said. “I think the 10-year time horizon is just way too short.”
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