Recycling Law Needs to be Thrown Out

California's plastic bag bill

Recently it was reported that the Integrated Waste Management Board cut electricity use at their Sacramento headquarters by 8 percent, just by having janitors work during the day so that the lights could be turned off at night. The office building in question houses the state’s environmental boards and departments, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s website describes many of the “stat-of-the-art” (sic) features that make it “among the world’s most energy and resource-efficient buildings.” If the building is a metaphor for the agency it houses, the fact that cleaning up the agency’s act was, literally, as simple as changing the way it takes out the trash is very telling.

It also makes us wonder what other barriers to the state’s resource-efficiency might be right under our noses.

Ironically, you don’t have to look any farther than an odd California anachronism that attempts to regulate not just what we put in the trash, but what we put the trash in—the Plastics Trash Bag Law.

The Plastics Trash Bag Law is one of four major plastics-related laws intended to boost recycling rates in California. The marginal successes of these laws are offset by an unintended consequence: the laws also boost the use of plastic.

As the casual observer might note, California has never exactly had a trash bag problem. In 1993, legislators wanted to create a bigger market for recycled polyethylene, so they picked a manufacturer of plastic products and simply forced them to buy it. Thus, the Plastics Trash Bag Law was born. Since the law’s enactment, trash bag manufacturers have been required to utilize ten to thirty percent recycled plastic in all trash bags intended for sale in California, with all manufacturers reporting to the state on an annual basis for certification.

Of course, if there was a ready supply of post-consumer polyethylene suitable for recycling into new trash bags, manufacturers would have already been using it. Trash bag manufacturers affected by the Trash Bag Law immediately found that post-consumer plastics were hard to come by, and the poor quality of the materials required meant the bags had to be extra thick, reinforced with plastic from virgin sources. Worse, other industrial manufacturers increasingly sought to buy from the same limited supply of post-consumer plastics to make popular recycled products such as plastic decking and siding.

In 2003, the Integrated Waste Management Board commissioned a study on how the state could optimize plastics use, recycling, and disposal. The researchers returned to the Board with a report that California’s four major environmental laws relating to plastics are “flawed collectively and individually” and that California’s Plastics Trash Bag Law, along with a similar law relating to rigid plastic containers, “essentially became ineffective and obsolete upon their final implementation.”

The Integrated Waste Management Board estimates that trash bags constitute about 1 percent by weight of the municipal solid waste disposed of in California. Less than half those trash bags are subject to the Plastics Trash Bag Law, because they’re made outside of the country or are exempt for other reasons. Even at one-hundredth of one percent, the inclusion of the small amount of recycled plastic in those trash bags would still be significant in terms of waste diversion in California—if it were not for market realities. But because the quantity and quality of post-consumer plastics necessary to meet demand under the law is not available from within California, manufacturers must import some of the post-consumer plastic from outside of the state.

All to make a trash bag worthy of being thrown away in California.

Consider how much more efficiency could be gained by allowing the market to direct the use of recycled materials—say, for instance, into products other than the one designed for no other purpose but to be thrown into a landfill?

Skaidra Smith-Heisters is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a free market think tank. An archive of her work is here. Reason’s California-related research and commentary is here and Reason’s garbage-recycling research and commentary is here.