Changes to Plastic Container Recycling Rates Shift Burden to Users

Date: Oct 01, 2004

Recent amendments to California's Rigid Plastic Packaging Container Act are likely to shift compliance for recycled content and recyclability directly onto product manufacturers. Currently, the law reflects some hard fought compromises, which gave industry options for determining whether the state recycling goals were being achieved. That may now go by the wayside.

SB 1729 will reduce the number of options and revise the definition of "recycling rate" to exclude containers for food, drug, cosmetics and similar products from determining recycling rates. This "tweak" is likely to result in greater compliance burdens for individual companies.

The current law

Enacted in 1991, the Rigid Plastic Packaging Container Act is intended to encourage product manufacturers, distributors and importers of rigid plastic packaging containers (RPPCs) to use containers that are recyclable, reusable or contain recycled material. The California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) oversees this program.

The way the law currently works, CIWMB publishes an annual recycling rate for all RPPCs and for product associated RPPCs, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET). If the recycling rate for all RPPCs is greater than 25% (or 55% for PET or 45% for other specified categories), all regulated manufacturers are considered to have complied. However, should the recycling rate fall below the required levels, product companies that manufacture non-exempt products must comply with the statute by using RPPCs that either (1) contain 25% post-consumer resin; (2) have been source-reduced by 10%; or (3) are refillable or reusable.

New calculations

SB 1729 makes two fundamental changes. The first essentially drops the 25% and 55% recycling rate criteria. This means that the only criteria related to recycling rate is that RPPC "have a recycling rate of 45% if it is a product-associated rigid plastic packaging container."

The second change makes compliance even tougher. SB 1729 removes from the recycling rate calculation products currently exempted-food, cosmetics and beverages-even though consumers are recycling these plastic containers. This could result in RPPC recycling rates falling below 45% for many product associated containers, thereby requiring yearly alternative compliance certifications by hundreds of businesses.

Because there were safety concerns with the use of recycled plastics in contact with food, drugs and cosmetics, the State initially excluded them from the law. But California also wanted to encourage the safe use of recycled content when possible, so it allowed these materials to be included in the recycling rate calculation.

Now, it appears that the State has decided to get rid of the carrot and is threatening to use the stick alone. By legislating that which is not economically sensible, the State is likely to increase costs for all with no measurable environmental benefit.

Under the amended law, the product maker, container manufacturer or other entity must demonstrate compliance.

Used with permission. Copyright FOOD & DRUG PACKAGING, October, 2004.