Sustainability Remains Top Issue in Some States

Experts Predict Big Push in 2021, Particularly on the West Coast

Sustainability Remains Top Issue in Some States

State governments nationwide put numerous recycling and waste-reduction proposals on hold in 2020 while concentrating on the pandemic, but initiatives will resume in 2021, several observers suggest.

Lauren Aguilar and Andy Hackman, both lobbyists for Serlin Haley that represents the Flexible Packaging Association, note that California, in particular, will be moving on various legislative initiatives that industry leaders should monitor. Those efforts will be developed simultaneously as recycling proponents work to put proposals to the voters with a 2022 referendum. 

While legislation died in August in California, Aguilar says, 2021 will see a lot of movement on packaging legislation that would include defining what is recyclable, developing methods for drop off centers, implementing product labeling measures and other details. The proposals that died in August would have required 100 percent recyclable, compostable, or reusable standards by 2032 and would have mandated a 75 percent waste reduction goal for single-use plastic packaging and priority single-use products. Meanwhile, the ballot initiative has been gathering the required signatures to get a proposal to the voters in November 2022, she adds. 

The ballot initiative would require producers to transition to reusable, refillable, recyclable, or compostable packing, while establishing more ways for consumers to have additional access to recycling. By 2030, producers would be required to use recycled content and renewable materials in the production of single-use packaging and impose a 1-cent tax on producers for each piece of single-use packaging they produce. Hackman says the tax would raise an estimated $1 billion per year. 

“This initiative is really important because it is going to dictate what type of legislation we see in California in 2021,” says Aguilar, who is based in the Sacramento office of Serlin Haley. 

If the industry works with recycling proponents to develop legislation that is passed in 2021, she explains, then the industry will have a say in the outcome. “So, that is going to be a huge goal for the industry coming into 2021,” she says.

And California legislation would be an impetus to pull the ballot initiative, she notes, while cautioning that some stakeholders likely still will push for the referendum even if legislation is passed.

The efforts in California will be significant, says Hackman, who is based in the Washington, D.C., office of Serlin Haley. 

“We need legislation to pass in California in order to pre-empt a ballot initiative, which is much worse for a lot of folks,” Hackman says. 

Meanwhile, Oregon and Washington legislators will be moving on bills in 2021, too, Aguilar also says. Oregon likely will have legislation that requires both financial and operational responsibilities from producers. In Washington, three primary recommendations have emerged—Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPR) for all consumer packaging and paper, a return system that requires deposits for all beverage containers, and recycled content requirements for all plastic packaging, she adds.

Hackman says a number of other states will push forward with bills in 2021, even though their budget situation will not greatly improve for several years. He points to statistics that the total state budget shortfall for the 2020 fiscal year will be about $110 billion. Those shortfalls will rise to $290 billion in 2021 before dropping to $155 billion in 2022.

“In terms of what could pass next year, I think we are somewhere in the realm of 80% likely to see legislation pass in Maine, pass in Oregon, pass in Vermont, and California,” Hackman says. “New York, Washington, and Connecticut are all very likely possibilities to continue with legislation for next year.” 

Even though priorities shifted in 2020, the year started with numerous bills that included eight states that considered EPR regulations, 15 states that proposed labeling bills, 20 states that had recycling initiatives and 41 states with bills involving plastics. Without the pandemic, Hackman says, it would have been likely that Maine, Vermont, California, and maybe New York would have passed some type of package recycling or EPR legislation in 2020.

The scope of the bills in 2021 is still up for debate, Hackman says, with a core question falling around financing solutions. Other questions include how much influence the industry will have over the systems that are developed and how the recycling systems will be administered.

“And, really, what will the definition of recyclability be?” Hackman says. 

One unknown will be how state policies intersect with federal policies and whether interest will increase on the federal level. If some states pass laws, he asks, would the federal government step in to create a more uniform system?

“That really is an open-ended question,” Hackman says. “I don’t think that is going to happen next year, even if there is an administration shift and a shift in Congress, but I think there definitely is going to be increased interest in federal policy and how well that will impact or potentially pre-emt and impact state activity.” 

FPA commissioned a report released this fall that outlined various roadmaps to a sustainable future. The more than 200-page report says that it is increasingly likely that some form of a national funding mechanism, such as an EPR, will be in place by 2030.

“EPR as a funding mechanism will likely start at the state level and could work toward a national framework over the decade,” says the report titled The Path of Flexible Packaging to a Circular Economy. “The challenges of collection, sortation, reprocessing, and end market value for all packaging—but flexible packaging in particular—show that significant infrastructure funding will be needed to eventually drive holistic system changes to capture a large portion of flexible packaging, enabling it to align with circular economy principles.”

Hackman says some of the keys to the future involve industry leaders staying proactive and involved in legislation, particularly through FPA. He says members have responded to past appeals to get involved when asked by FPA, even when the request is on short notice to contact legislators about issues.

He also encourages each company to think about how recycled content could be an avenue for them to achieve compliance in some states.

“And how are we going to create more demand and more markets for our packages at the end of life and for our materials? And how are we going to create a product stewardship organization that not only represents the entire packaging supply chain but really helps flexibles move up the hierarchy and reach recyclability?” he says. “Those are things that really are going to be key and are what we need to navigate and help us have a successful business plan for the industry in the future.” 

Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE™.