California debates 15% goal for bioplastic beverage bottles

Source: Plastics News



As President Joe Biden's administration floats its plan to speed up the development of bioplastics, lawmakers in California are jumping in, saying they want to create state incentives to use more plant-based plastics in beverage bottles.

The state Assembly is considering a bill that would provide modest incentives to companies using plant-based plastics, as well as set a non-binding goal that plastic beverage bottles need to be made with 15 percent bio-based materials by 2030.

It's that voluntary 15 percent goal that's drawing concerns from some lawmakers and beverage companies, who fear it could become a mandate, following a 2020 law that California passed requiring recycled plastic in bottles.

"A lot of these things start out as goals but it does appear there is a desire to move that beyond just a goal in the future," said Assemblymember Josh Hoover, R-Folsom, in an April 10 committee hearing. "That is certainly a red flag for me."

However, supporters of the bioplastic bill, including sponsor Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, said the legislation only calls for the biomaterial content as a goal, not a requirement.

Irwin was one of the lead authors of the 2020 recycled content mandate, known as Assembly Bill 793, and spent several years pushing it in the Assembly before it finally passed.

That law, which is among the strictest in the world, requires 50 percent recycled plastic use by 2030, ramping up from 15 percent now.

She framed the bioplastic measure as the next step.

"While those changes secured by AB-793 are a momentous step in the right direction, we must continue to reduce the carbon emissions that fossil fuel-based plastics create," Irwin said. "As we move toward a fully circular economy, many manufacturing processes still need virgin materials. That is what the bill focuses on."

Besides the 15 percent goal, the legislation also would give bottle makers 10 percent discounts on processing fees they pay under the state's bottle bill program, if they use plastic made from agricultural waste.

The incentives would not apply to bioplastics made from food crops.

Supporters of the bill, which passed out of its first committee on an 8-3 vote, said it would be an important step toward setting up standards for bioplastics.

They want the state to encourage materials like bio-based PET that can be a drop-in resin replacement and function seamlessly in the state's recycling programs, and say they want to discourage alternatives like polylactic acid plastic containers, which they see as problematic for recycling.

Screenshot of California Natural Resources Committee hearing

Dennis Albiani, a lobbyist for the beverage and consumer products industries, outlines concerns about California legislation that would encourage bioplastic in beverage bottles.

Moving too fast

Beverage industry groups are opposing Irwin's plan, saying the industry has made investments and changed its supply chains to meet the requirements of the 2020 law to use recycled PET in bottles.

They urged legislators to slow down and let AB-793 and SB-54, the state's packaging extended producer responsibility law, take effect before adding bioplastics into the regulatory mix.

"As we go down that track, we've coordinated our supply chains for RPET, we've coordinated our investments to RPET, we've developed some technology for RPET and frankly we've even changed our policy views," said Dennis Albiani, a Sacramento lobbyist speaking for the American Beverage Association and the Consumer Brands Association at the hearing.

"This is what this bill is doing, it's changing some of the rules, it's changing our supply chains," he said, adding that the state should focus on fixing its existing recycling system.

As well, the International Bottled Water Association pushed lawmakers to clarify whether the bill ultimately seeks a mandate for biobased plastics, saying that some committee analysis of the bill is unclear.

"We read it as a requirement, the committee analysis calls it a requirement," said IBWA lobbyist Eloy Garcia. "We should at least be clear on whether this is a requirement or a mandate."

But Democrats, including committee chair Luz Rivas, D-Arleta, said they were supporting the measure because it's not a mandate.

"It's an incentive program with a goal," Irwin said. "I think the opposition is saying that a goal will morph into something else but that's not what this bill is."

No food crop plastics

A supporter of Irwin's bill, the environmental group Californians Against Waste, said it is important for the state to develop standards for bioplastics, as it has done for recycled plastic.

"We are the global leader in requirements for recycled content in plastic beverage containers," said Mark Murray, CAW's executive director. "We should be the global leader in specifying definitions and creating incentives for using plant waste material in plastic beverage containers."

"I say plant waste material because California doesn't want companies to be making plastic out of food products," he said. "But there are plenty of plant waste materials and forestry waste materials that can be made into plastics. That's the key of this bill."

In his testimony, he told legislators that Biden's March announcement of a goal of replacing 90 percent of petroleum-based plastic in 20 years is evidence that "this is happening."

CAW has also pointed to a 2021 announcement from Coca-Cola Co., that Coke is creating a 100 percent plant-based bioPET bottle, as an indication that industry is moving in the direction of the bill.

A support letter CAW submitted with the bill suggested the state should encourage bottles made with a combination of recycled plastic and bio-based virgin PET resin, which could "have the potential to deliver a lower carbon footprint than any beverage package currently available," CAW said.

Irwin told the committee that she wanted to continue working with industry and environmental groups to address concerns and build support, as legislators did with AB-793.

"As [Albiani] stated, we have worked collaboratively on bills for a number of years and when we finally got 793 to the finish line, we had no opposition," Irwin said. "Certainly if this gets to the finish line we would hope that we're in the same situation."