export containers

Legislation awaiting the governor’s signature would classify mixed plastics that are generated in California and exported from the U.S. as “disposal” rather than “recycling.” | Sumrit Tesrumphun/Shutterstock

California lawmakers have approved a bill that would no longer allow scrap plastic that is exported to be considered recycled. The legislation now heads to the governor for final consideration.

Assembly Bill 881 would classify mixed plastics exported from the U.S. as “disposal” rather than “recycling,” for the purposes of the state’s recycling requirements. The state mandates local governments “divert from disposal 50% of all solid waste” as defined in statutes.

Overall, California has a statewide diversion goal of 75%. Under Assembly Bill 881, mixed plastics that are exported would not count toward this target. Mixed plastics generally account for just a small segment of the residential recycling stream, when assessed by weight.

The bill passed the Senate in a 37-0 vote on Aug. 23 and the Assembly in a 78-0 vote on Sept. 1. It now heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, for final approval or veto.

Mixed-plastic bales, otherwise known as 1-7 or 3-7 bales depending on their composition, typically include low-value mixtures of plastics that are aren’t often economically viable to further segregate in the U.S.

These bales have historically been sent to other countries, a practice that has generated significant public attention in the years since China banned import of scrap plastics. Many countries have followed suit in restricting import of these materials, and the plastic grade was further scrutinized in recent changes to the Basel Convention, a global waste treaty that this year began regulating scrap plastic shipments.

In recent years, a handful of domestic processors have increased the North American capacity to handle these plastics.

Assembly Bill 881 was sponsored by California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat representing San Diego. In a release this month, Gonzalez said the bill “ensures we’re being honest and transparent about our commitment to reduce plastic waste in California and meet our recycling goals.”

The bill received vocal support from a variety of stakeholders. Environmental advocacy groups including Californians Against Waste and the Ocean Conservancy were joined by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents resin producers, in supporting the legislation.

ACC said the bill will establish a “more accurate baseline of recycling rates for industry and government to take further action, including increasing access to waste collection and recycling; supporting deployment of technologies, such as advanced recycling, to increase the circularity of plastics; and supporting innovation in product and packaging design to improve recyclability and increase the use of recycled materials in new packaging.”

Gonzalez spoke about the bill in a video published by Californians Against Waste last month.

Legislative analysis documents indicate there were no arguments in opposition on file.

Export analysis

U.S. mixed-plastic exports, alongside all scrap plastic exports, have declined dramatically in the years since China’s ban.

Although there is no export commodity code that specifically tracks mixed-plastic bales under the Department of Commerce trade statistics database, these materials are typically exported under the commodity code for “other” plastics. This classification is also used for engineered plastics recovered from electronics and appliances, among other resins.

Trade statistics indicate 17.8 million pounds of “other” plastics have been exported from California ports so far in 2021. That is substantially lower than recent years. In 2015, for example, California ports exported 979.9 million pounds of “other” plastics.

The export numbers include scrap shipped from other states via rail and highways to California, where the bales are exported. California recycling regulators aren’t able to track the quantities of mixed-plastic scrap generated in California and then exported from California ports.

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