California’s Updated Plastic Packaging Regulations – More “Clamshell” and Other Plastic Containers Now Regulated
Major updates to California’s rigid plastic packaging container (“RPPC”) regulations went into effect at the start of the new year, adding over 500 million plastic containers to the program’s regulatory reach.
The California Rigid Plastic Packaging Container Act was first passed in 1991 to encourage recycling and reuse and to reduce the amount of virgin resins used in product packaging. The Act has three compliance options available for product packaging: manufacturers can (1) ensure that their packaging is made of at least 25% post-consumer material, (2) choose packaging that is reusable or refillable at least five times, or (3) “source-reduce” the packaging weight by 10% within one year after the product is placed on the market in California. A fourth compliance option, based on the rate at which containers were recycled, was removed by statute in 2004 because of difficulties with accurately calculating the recycling rate on a timely basis.
According to CalRecycle, the state agency responsible for recycling and waste management, the RPPC regulations were amended to remove obsolete provisions, ensure consistency with statutory changes, and otherwise improve clarity and make it easier for product and packaging manufacturers to comply. For example, the updates aim to clarify the law while evening the regulatory playing field by making its application consistent across virtually identical types of packaging. The revisions broaden the definition of RPPC to include containers with non-plastic “incidental packaging elements,” such as non-plastic hinges or handles. In addition, an RPPC no longer must be capable of multiple re-closures, thus bringing all “clamshell” packaging within the meaning of the definition. Under the old regulations, RPPC regulations only applied to clamshell packages which could be reclosed – like those used for salad greens in the supermarket, while heat-sealed packages meant to be opened only once – like those containing small electronics – were not covered.
The revised regulations also significantly modify some aspects of the RPPC program’s various compliance options. The RPPC program’s reusable compliance option now specifically excludes containers meant to house a product permanently. In addition, resin-switching – substituting a lighter-weight plastic resin for a heavier one – is no longer an acceptable source reduction compliance option. The revised regulations also clarify that the post-consumer material compliance option cannot be met through the use of post-industrial material. The RPPC program’s definition of post-consumer material now covers obsolete and unsold products when used as feedstock, as well as rejected finished plastic packaging that has been disposed.
Another significant part of the update is a new three-step notification system for product makers, which CalRecycle developed to reduce companies’ regulatory burden. After receiving notice from CalRecycle, product makers can (1) register with the agency, which will (2) conduct pre-certification evaluation to determine if product packaging is compliant. Finally, (3) compliance certification is completed one year after pre-certification. Manufacturers have two years from initial notice before certification is due, which the agency hopes will provide more opportunities for manufacturers to resolve any compliance issues.
The process of amending the RPPC regulations began in 2007 and concluded when the revised regulations became effective on January 1, 2013. Information on the extensive rulemaking process is available on CalRecycle’s Rulemaking archive.