Heaps of garbage in a landfill. (Photo: SeeCee / Shutterstock.com)
Audrey Hill
Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

By Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

It is not a mystery that packaging and foodware quality directly impacts the freshness of the produce that it contains. Transportation and processing of foods out of the fields can be nonnegotiable in terms of time, even if that means only hours. Unfortunately, getting produce to market as fast as possible is sometimes not fast enough. Because of this, today’s produce packaging plays a very important role in making sure fruits and veggies are still fresh when they are brought home from the grocery store and when they are packed into lunches or brought out for dinner. For many, the plastic packaging that is purchased with almost all grocery goods isn’t given a second thought after it’s thrown away. However, as the state moves forward as a national and world leader in its sustainable development, plans are in place to change that.

Just as energy and water have been the battlefield for change towards environmental resilience in California, recycling, and waste industries are up next, specifically with plastic packaging producers on the chopping block. Senate Bill No. 54, approved by Governor Newsom on June 30, 2022, will enact the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Plastic Producer Responsibility Act. This act has set a goal to “source reduce” plastic packaging material to ensure that by 2028, 30% of plastics used in California are recyclable. The long end of the bill hopes to reach 65% recyclability by 2032. The bill also reports that in 2021 “only five percent of post-consumer plastic waste in the United States was recycled, down from a high of 9.5 percent in 2014, when the United State exported millions of tons of plastic waste to China. Even then, much of this material was incinerated or dumped into the environment and not recycled.” (SB54, 42040, Part 3A)

Improving recycling from 5 to 30 percent in six years is quite ambitious, however, by forcing producers to commit to a gradual decline in the production of single-use plastics, the percentage of materials able to be recycled should grow drastically. The bill intends to have plastic packaging producers “take responsibility for the costs associated with the end-of-life management of that material and ensure that the material is recyclable or compostable.” (SB54, 42040, Part 3B.) Hopefully, this means that the generated funds will be used to develop a better recycling system. Furthermore, the bill states that “producers will be required to eliminate, redesign or shift packaging” designs that cannot uphold the standards of the bill – i.e. cannot be adequately recycled (SB54, 42040, Part 4). All these requirements will be overseen by CalRecycle, which intends to ban certain plastics outright if their production and usage are not being cut back.

But what does this mean for growers and produce markets? Gail Delihant, Director of Governmental Affairs for Western Growers Association, mentioned in a webinar presented by The Packer entitled “What New Recycling Legislation Means to Growers and Grocers,” that during the bills deliberations, she worked to keep agricultural field plastics like drip tape and films exempt from the new standards. So, the changes applied by the bill will be on packaging sold to consumers, referred to as “covered material.” These include flexible and ridged single-use packaging for produce like bagged salads, grape bags, chip bags, etc. Prices for packaging will increase due to this bill, but how much depends on the producer and what change the producer will make to stay in line with the bill’s qualifications.

Retailer representatives present at the webinar like Stephanie Morris, Sustainability Coordinator for Jimbo’s, and Chelsea Minor, Corporate Director of Public Affairs for Raley’s, seemed ready to “nip our dependence on plastic” (Minor). They are also prepared to help educate consumers on the plastics that are sold in the store and offer consumers the chance to recycle smarter. Grocers like Jimbo’s and Raley’s are considering upscaling their store drop-off of plastics that cannot be recycled in the city or county facilities. Despite many grocery stores offering take-back programs for plastics that can be recycled (but not through city or county facilities), many people are not aware of these programs. Although grocers are offering solutions to improve the recyclability of food packaging that would otherwise go to the landfill, those speaking in the webinar agreed that it is not the job of the retailers to become the equivalent of a plastic dump, especially if recycling starts to ramp up due to SB54. Roxanne Spiekerman, Vice President of Business Development for PreZero Recycling, pushes for the state to use the funds generated from the plastic producers to expand the infrastructure of materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and hauling equipment so that grocers and retailers don’t have to carry the burden and so recycling can still happen curbside. Certainly, the state will need to provide more support and funding to recycling and recovery industries if the amounts of recyclable materials increase at the rate the state hopes for.

Plastic packaging may be a cheap and easy way to move foods across the nation, but it also combats food waste and can be disease resistant. This bill is securing plastic as a viable form of packaging in California’s future by pushing plastic producers to create products that can work in an environmentally friendly society. Much more collaboration between industries needs to occur to decide the best, most efficient way to get the right materials into the right waste stream, but consumers should expect a change relatively quickly.

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