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Cal Poly SLO professor says new California law could help state's plastic waste problem

Single Use plastic
Flickr / Chemist 4 U
Single use plastics like this is one major cause of pollution

A new California law, SB54, is now in effect that aims to reduce plastic packaging by 2032. A Cal Poly SLO professor who studies packaging says that while plastics are a huge environmental issue, the new law could promote sustainability innovation that SLO County needs.

SB54 went into effect June 30, requiring all packaging in the state to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. The law also mandates cutting plastic packaging by 25 percent in 10 years, and requires 65 percent of all single-use plastic packaging to be recycled in the same timeframe.

“It performs well, it's cheap and it's durable. The issue is we are using way too much of it,” said Cal Poly SLO’s Packaging Program Director, Professor Jay Singh.

Singh said even with new state regulation, California and SLO County are behind when it comes to instituting positive sustainable innovation.

Beth Thornton
This anaerobic digester in Santa Barbara County is one way waste can turn into energy.

“California is a laggard," he said, comparing the state's single-use plastic law to those of many countries further ahead on plastic regulations. "Even countries like India have put that in place decades ago," he said.

Singh says locally, the biggest conflict SLO County faces is not having the facilities in place to handle the different kinds of plastics that consumers use.

According to SLO County Recycling, 25 percent of what comes in is declared contaminated and sent to the landfill. “They only handle one or two of the more popular plastic types. So it possibly ends up, worst case, in a landfill, best case maybe get going for energy — which we don't do here in this county,” said Singh.

Singh said even if we wanted to recycle 100 percent of our plastic, we couldn’t. SLO County just doesn’t have the recycling facilities available to do so. Singh's idea for one solution is educating local consumers on their plastic use, and creating the facilities that we need.

“That's what our program allows us to do, as we get 18 year olds and we try our best to educate them on, 'What is packaging? What is its impact on society?'” Singh said.

While Singh feels SLO County’s handling of plastic waste is a mixed bag, he said there are solutions, and that Cal Poly’s packaging management practices could be a good example. He said he hopes that could be a model for the rest of the county.

Updated: July 19, 2022 at 11:56 AM PDT
This story has been updated to clarify the comparison between the new law and other countries' plastic management regulations, and clarify the difference between Cal Poly's packaging program versus their current plastic management practices.
Gabriela Fernandez came to KCBX in May of 2022 as a general assignment reporter, and became news director in December of 2023. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an associate producer on the TahoeLand podcast. When she's not writing or editing news stories, she loves to travel, play tennis and take her 140-lbs dog, Atlas, on long walks by the coast.
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