Resource Recycling News

Stakeholders respond to California recyclability report

California is in the process of implementing a state law that defines which materials are considered truly recyclable. | Brandon Bourdages/Shutterstock

California regulators released a preliminary report on which commodities the state might consider recyclable, with promising results for many materials but a handful of low scores that drew criticism from manufacturers and others earlier this month. 

The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), a division of the California Environmental Protection Agency overseeing waste management, recycling and waste reduction, released its Material Characterization Study Preliminary Findings late last year and took the first round of public comments during a Feb. 13 informational session. 

Nearly all of the state’s population has access to recycling programs that accept glass bottles, aluminum and steel cans, cardboard, single-use PET, HDPE and polypropylene containers and other packaging, the report found. Only about half can say the same for cartons and aluminum bottles, on the other hand, and programs taking different plastic films and bags cover 30% of residents or fewer. 

The results are being closely watched by manufacturers, recycling advocates and others because of a 2021 state law that restricts which products can be marked with three “chasing arrows.” The design is often perceived as the symbol of recyclability, though it also appears on materials that are rarely, if ever, recycled. 

To bear the symbol under the new law, products sold in California must be accepted by recycling programs that encompass at least 60% of the state’s population and be sorted and processed by facilities that serve at least 60% of recycling programs. 

During the Feb. 13 session, CalRecycle staff took pains to emphasize that the recent report doesn’t make a legal determination of which materials are in or out. Instead it simply provides information for others to make that evaluation, based on a far-flung survey of the state’s recycling jurisdictions and its sorting and processing facilities. 

The draft report is also subject to further comment and revision, with a formal meeting to present updated findings and hear more public comment set for sometime this spring. The final report would come 60 days after that future meeting, and the regulation would go into effect still later.

In the meantime, several groups were eager to share their thoughts. Several pointed out what they saw as gaps in the report, such as that it excludes the California Redemption Value system and didn’t consider whether the handling of certain materials met the Basel Convention’s standards

“There’s some results that have come out from this document that seem counterintuitive or contrary to the results we found under the state recycling commission,” such as surprisingly high scores for PET thermoforms, said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste. 

Several manufacturer groups raised similar concerns but for lower scores than expected, particularly for cartons and aluminum bottles. 

“Our data clearly shows cartons meet the criteria and are clearly recyclable,” said Eric Harris, director of government relations and public affairs for Tetra Pak, who spoke on behalf of the Carton Council of North America. Sustainability and recyclability are core concerns for the organization, he added. “As you can imagine, we were perplexed to see the results.” 

Dylan de Thomas, vice president of public policy and government affairs with The Recycling Partnership, asked for greater transparency and clarity for the data behind CalRecycle’s findings but praised the agency for taking on the task.

“This is a herculean effort,” he said. 

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