Trash: Trash has piled up on local beaches in the past and Ben Allen wants to get recycling back on the front burner for residents. SMDP file photo

For the past year, Covid-19 has almost exclusively occupied political attention, drawing focus away from a different disaster with the capacity to dramatically alter all aspects of life — climate change.

Between the proliferation of disposable PPE and takeout containers alongside the relaxing of plastic bag ordinances and slashed recycling budgets, California has taken several steps backwards in its environmental leadership. Fortunately, there is political momentum rebuilding.

To learn more about the 2021 legislative landscape for climate action, the Daily Press interviewed local State Senator and Chair of the Environmental Quality Commission, Ben Allen. Senator Allen shares further political insights on school reopenings, housing, and restructuring the L.A. Board of Supervisors on this week’s episode of the Inside the Daily Press podcast.

What key environmental policies are you pursuing this year?

I continue to work really hard on the question of plastic pollution and trying to impose some degree of coherence under our system.

One of the problems with our current system is that the folks who have the most power over whether we get buried by plastic or not, the producers, really have no skin in the game. So we’re trying to create a regulatory market mechanism to push the producers to build products that are more recyclable, more reusable, or compostable.

We want to tell the producers, please, reduce your plastic waste to the extent you can; to the extent that you do continue to need to use plastic, let’s focus on the more recyclable plastic; and let’s make a plan that will increase the likelihood that plastic will be collected, sorted, and truly turned into another item.

Do you get a lot of pushback from producers when trying to shift this responsibility for recycling onto them?

There’s absolutely pushback and we had a very bold bill—the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act—that passed the Senate and came within four votes of passing the assembly.

There are some businesses that have been real innovators in creating environmentally friendly products and stand to gain from these sorts of policies because their products already comply. Yet there are also those companies that want to keep producing the cheap non-recyclable plastics and still put the chasing arrow sign on their products, claiming that they are recyclable. They are technically recyclable and under perfect conditions but actuality, in real life conditions, they’re not getting recycled.

Do you have a plan to deal with misleading labeling of recyclable products?

I’ve got another bill that is basically a ‘truth in advertising’ bill. It seeks to hold these producers accountable if they’re going to put that chasing arrows symbol on their product. It’s called SB 343 and it would require the state to create a standardized list of recyclable items for California residential and commercial collection programs. The idea is that the list would identify and allow products that meet certain criteria to be marketed and labeled as recyclable.

What held back the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act from passing last year?

A lot of factors that went into it. Within the legislature, the Senate and Assembly don’t always get along and there were some weird games being played in that respect.

On the industry side there were some players who didn’t want to see any change. I think at the end of the day a lot of my colleagues hear a lot from the very aggressive and well-financed lobbying world. Lobbyists have the most power when the general public is not as aware of the issue that’s being voted on, so the legislator feels that they’re going to get less blowback for not standing up on a vote like this.

Interestingly some of the most passionate supporters didn’t just come from the environmental community, but from our cities. City governments are getting increasingly hammered and squeezed because of the incoherence and dysfunction of our recycling system.

Are you feeling optimistic about some of this environmental legislation passing in 2021?

It’s a very unpredictable time, but one thing that works to our advantage this year is that we’ve got a measure eligible for the next ballot that puts very strong restrictions on single use plastic. The fact that we came so close to passing the Circular Economy Act, the fact that the ballot measure is out there, and the fact that more legislators are starting to pay attention to the issue, shows that we forced the issue in a really serious way.

We’re now also part of a national effort with legislators from all over the country who are introducing plastics legislation in various states like New York, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to get something meaningful through this year, but it’s going to take attention, focus, hard work, advocacy and public interest.