Recycling policy in California is at a crossroads. In an effort to overcome our state’s urgent sustainability challenges, the Legislature is now considering a broad array of bills that aim to reduce waste or increase the use of recycled and recyclable materials.  

However, to balance the state’s environmental goals and the needs of California businesses and consumers — especially those in disadvantaged communities — lawmakers would be wise to use a scalpel instead of a hatchet when crafting a long-term sustainability strategy. 

Unfortunately, two bills under consideration would place the burden of increased recycling directly on small businesses and their customers. AB 1080 and SB 54, collectively known as the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, would require a 75 percent reduction of the waste generated from priority single-use plastic products by 2030. While reducing plastic waste may ostensibly seem like a positive development, a closer look reveals that these bills fail to address the root of our recycling issues and could ultimately present significant and severe harm in our communities.  

Despite being a state that prides itself on its environmental record, California’s recycling industry is struggling. In fact, bottle recycling rates in California have fallen below 80 percent for the first time in more than a decade, leaving the Golden State with a severe shortage of recyclable materials.

As a result, recycling centers are shuttering across the state. Just last month, rePlanet, the state’s most extensive recycling center, was forced to abruptly close its 284 redemption centers. As more and more recycling centers close, even Californians with the most environmentally-friendly intentions are being left with few options when it comes to redeeming their beverage bottles and other plastic goods.  

Without enough supply of recycled plastic, the implications of AB 1080 and SB 54 could be devastating for businesses in the state. Already facing a barrage of taxes and other complicated red tape, California businesses would be forced to raise prices yet again to meet the new packaging mandates, posing a serious risk to their ability to keep the doors open. Meanwhile, because of the aggressive timeline for implementing the bills, many smaller businesses operating on tight margins could struggle to quickly handle the required packaging changes. 

Worse, everyday Californians will ultimately be forced to pay the price at the checkout counter as businesses will inevitably pass along costs on impacted food and drinks. These price hikes would hurt low-income families — often coming from particularly our communities of color, which are already struggling to make ends meet. AB 1080 and SB 54 amount to little more than another regressive tax on these Californians who can least afford it. 

Moreover, the bills come at a time when our black and brown communities are already facing unique environnemental challenges, with failing water systems plaguing thousands of California families. Perhaps the wealthiest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and San Francisco can afford to choose to skip plastic packaging and make similar eco-friendly decisions. However, these sweeping bills clearly did not consider the unintended consequences that risk leaving our disadvantaged communities even further behind.

However, there is another way. AB 54, introduced by Assembly Member Phil Ting (San Francisco), would address our failing recycling infrastructure by ensuring that there be at least one certified recycling center in each of the state’s waste management convenience zones. By providing a spark for our slumping recycling infrastructure, this bill would help the Legislature take charge on recycling issues, rather than forcing businesses and consumers to shoulder the burden. It will also help provide a greater supply of recycled plastic for manufacturers to use, without driving up costs and placing a strain on consumers.

In his efforts to save our recycling industry from the brink of collapse, Assembly Member Ting is paving a path forward that would serve to achieve sustainable solutions for reducing waste without coming at the expense of our most vulnerable communities. 

It should be the goal of every California lawmaker to do the same.