California looks to ban removable plastic bottle caps, restrict plastic straws

Key Points
  • California lawmakers are considering a bill that would require the beverage industry to use attachable caps on plastic bottles.
  • If it passes, the California measure could set a bottle cap and plastic bottle standard for the rest of the nation.
  • At the same time, California also is looking to impose restrictions on restaurants handing out plastic straws by requiring customers specifically request them.
  • The plastic straw bill follows the coastal city of Malibu recently passing an outright ban on plastic straw use.
Sprite plastic bottle caps.
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California may ban detachable caps on plastic bottles that could potentially set a bottling standard for the rest of the nation and the state also is looking at restricting plastic straws.

The plastic bottle cap legislation is designed to reduce litter and encourage that the caps get recycled but it would force beverage companies in California — the sixth-largest economy in the world — to switch to caps tethered to plastic bottles. That said, some bottled water companies such as Crystal Geyser have already started doing so and Nestle has it on sports caps for some of its Arrowhead bottled water.

Regardless, passage of Assembly Bill 2779 would force bottling companies to decide whether they want to have California-specific plastic bottles with tethered bottle caps or different bottles for other markets across the U.S. Given California is the nation's largest consumer market with more than 39 million people, there's a possibility beverage companies may decide to let California bottles become the industry standard.

"We're such a large market, which is why the beverage industry has been fighting us on this," said Assemblyman Mark Stone, who last month introduced the bill to force single-use plastic beverage container caps. "If we can accomplish this, it could change the landscape with respect to caps and bottles."

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Tide of plastic waste

Plastic bottle caps as the third-most ubiquitous piece of trash that is found in coastal cleanups by citizen, according to Stone.

A similar effort failed last year but Stone, a Democrat who represents portions of the state's northern Central Coast, said there's more interest this year. "It's something in fact the bottlers are working on, we know this. It's the direction that we're probably heading."

The International Bottled Water Association said in a statement it opposes the California tethered cap legislation for several reasons, including that it would "mandate requiring changes in manufacturing procedures" that would "negatively impact both small and large businesses." It also said there would be added cost that could get passed on to consumers and said the mandate could lead some companies to exit the state or even go out of business.

According to the American Beverage Association, the majority of bottle caps today are already recycled in the state — approximately 80 percent. "There are more comprehensive ways to improve overall plastic recycling rates," the association said in a statement, pointing out that they include "supporting more public education about recycling and reminding people to 'Keep the Cap On!'"

However, some see the fight against plastic garbage as more urgent since China this year stopped accepting plastic waste. North American plastic scrap has long been shipped to China but the world's most populous country has been overwhelmed by its own waste and environmental problem and banned not only polyethylene terephthalate (or PET) commonly used in water and soda plastic bottles, but 24 different types of solid waste.

California's straw bill

At the same time, California also is looking to impose restrictions on restaurants handing out plastic straws by requiring customers specifically request them. Penalties for violating the law originally included criminal penalties, including possible jail time and hefty fines, but they have since been removed from the proposed measure.

To be clear, Assembly Bill 1884 wouldn't ban plastic straws, but some local jurisdictions in the state have done so and require restaurants to use paper straws.

"I don't necessarily expect there to be a lot of opposition because it's a pretty measured approach when it comes to what's being asked," said Assemblyman Ian Calderon, who introduced the straws-upon-request legislation in January. Calderon, a Democrat who represents portions of eastern Los Angeles County, also is co-sponsoring the bottle cap measure with Stone.

Restaurants may actually save money with the bill, according to Calderon. Still, he said the plastics industry may have some concerns, but he insisted "nothing is being banned; it's just give-upon-request policy."

CNBC has reached out to the California Restaurant Association for comment.

An estimated 500 million straws are used in the U.S. every day, according the National Park Service. Some of the straws end up on beaches and in the oceans, posing a health hazard to sea life such as whales, turtles and birds, according to environmentalists.

Malibu plastic ban

In fact, some coastal communities in California already have taken action to ban plastic straws and other plastics in an attempt to keep beaches clear of trash and to protect the environment.

Last week, Malibu's City Council approved a ban on all plastic cutlery, stirrers and straws in the beach community. The ordinance, which takes effect June 1, would force Malibu restaurants to switch to paper straws and wood or bamboo cutlery.

"Banning the plastic straws and cutlery was really a natural progression from our ban on plastic bags 10 years ago," said Laura Rosenthal, a Malibu City Council member. "When the city and other coastal groups do coastal clean-up days, plastic straws are the fifth most common thing that they find on the beaches. And plastic utensils are the sixth most common."

Some environmental advocates fighting for the plastic bans cite a report that by 2050 the oceans could contain more plastics by weight than fish.

Sheila Morovati, a Los Angeles-area resident and environmental activist who fought for the Malibu ban, said plastic waste such as straws has showed up in dead whales as well as in the nostrils of sea turtles. Morovati said the coastal city of Santa Monica also is working on a plastic straw ban and the city of Los Angeles also is considering implementing a straw ban of its own.

Previously, two other California beach communities — Manhattan Beach and Santa Cruz — also passed plastic bans.

Also, the city of Seattle has a ban on plastic straws and utensils from all restaurants that goes into effect in July. Several beach communities in Florida also have passed plastic straw bans.

Under current California law, retailers in the state must provide customers with reusable plastic grocery bags or with recycled paper bags and charge at least 10 cents for each bag used. The plastics industry fought the plastic bag ban as a job killer but lost and recent reports have suggested it has cut down on litter.

Takeout container fee

Meantime, some environmental advocacy groups such as Upstream are now proposing local jurisdictions in California consider using the plastic bag fee approach to takeout food and beverage packaging to encourage customers to bring their own cups and their own food containers.

"You would have to pay instead of getting that cup for free," said Miriam Gordon, a policy director at San Francisco-based Upstream. "The same charge would be attached to food containers over a certain size. One way to avoid the charge would be to bring your own reusable container."

According to Gordon, such takeout container fees have been considered in Germany and Toronto. "We're hoping to make it happen first in the U.S."

Finally, in France there's a law that takes it a step further and bans plastic dishes, utensils and cups. It is set to go into effect in 2020.