In August, California became the first state in the U.S. to require any company making plastic bottles to use recycled plastic. Governor Newsom signed AB 793 into law on September 24th. Starting in 2022, big changes are coming to plastic bottles in the products available to consumers.

Many food and beverage manufacturers use virgin plastic to make their bottles. It’s what they’re used to and believe it’s stronger. Recycled plastic loses some of its strength. As a result, many companies do not buy and incorporate recycled plastic into their products. This is concerning as consumer plastics that are recycled aren’t being used in products that consumers purchase regularly.

What is Assembly Bill 793?

When demand for recycled plastic started to decline, recycling centers across California shuttered their doors. California’s legislators came up with a way to save these centers by bolstering sales of recycled plastic. As of 2022, companies that produce plastic bottles must make sure their products contain at least 15% recycled plastic.

By 2025, the amount of recycled plastic in plastic bottles must be at least 25%. In 2030, the bill reaches full impact by ensuring that these companies are using 50% recycled plastic. In just 10 years, companies will need to create bottles made from a 50/50 mix of virgin and recycled plastic.

Manufacturers who fail to meet these new requirements will be fined. For some companies, this won’t be hard. In 2019, Nestle’s use of post-consumer recycled plastic was just over 36%. Whole Foods and Coca-Cola were close behind at 20% and 19.3% respectively.

Some companies have to make major changes. As of 2019, Sunny Delight was not using any recycled plastic. The same is true of companies like POM Wonderful, Crystal Geyser Water, and Safeway. With AB 793, that will change. Companies must start using recycled plastic mixed with virgin plastic whether the bottle is covered by the deposit program or not, which makes this new law in California stand out.

How Does Plastics Recycling Work When Making New Bottles?

Years ago, BASF’s Senior Sustainability Manager Tony Heslop stated that the “heat and mechanic stress breaks down the polymer chains and makes the material weaker.” People tended to focus on this meaning that recycled plastic produced a weak product.

BASF specialists in chemicals. The company’s scientists found that the use of molecules known as “chain extenders” can fill in missing or thinning parts of a polymer chain and make recycled plastic just as strong.

To recycle plastic and turn it into new bottles, you start at the recycling center where the plastics are collected and sorted into the appropriate type of plastic. PET/PETE (♳) is the most commonly used plastic in the beverage industry. Plastic items are put into shredders. The shredded plastic moves into machines that slowly heat the plastic into a liquid that’s used to make plastic pellets. Those plastic pellets are cooled and packaged.

At the manufacturing plant, plastic pellets are placed in a hopper and melted down in the extruder. Pumps move the melted plastic into extrusion nozzles that dispense the plastic into a strand that’s cut when it’s the programmed length. An air nozzle goes into the plastic to inflate it before it goes into molds that quickly shape the top, sides, and bottom of the bottle. Once cooled, any rough pieces are trimmed and filed. Caps are added when the bottle is filled with the appropriate liquid.

To meet the terms of the new law, companies will need to purchase a mix of virgin plastic pellets and post-consumer recycled plastic pellets. That mix of pellets will go into the hopper to make bottles. Companies will mix the plastics and learn the right combinations to ensure strength while meeting the required percentages. By having stages, it gives them time to figure out what works best for their production lines.

Tips for Best Plastics Recycling Habits

Californians do a good job recycling plastic bottles and aluminum cans that have a 5¢ or 10¢ California Redemption Value (CRV). In 2018, more than 24 billion of these bottles were sold by retailers. Of those, 18.5 billion were properly recycled. While this is great news, it still means around 6 billion bottles and cans ended up in landfills.

If you didn’t pay CRV on the container, that doesn’t mean you cannot recycle it. California’s recycling centers take most types of plastics. It may vary from one city to another. Burbank’s curbside pick-up program accepts plastics with the numbers 1, 2, or 5. San Diego’s curbside recycling guide states all plastics are accepted, including plastic buckets, toys, and clean Styrofoam.

#1 – Clean Plastics Before Putting Them in the Bin

When recycling plastic, you should make sure it’s clean. If it’s still half-filled with food remnants, workers can’t accept it. Before moving a plastic bottle or food container into a bin, fill it with hot water and soap. Let it soak for half an hour. Put the cap on and shake the bottle vigorously to loosen stuck-on messes. Rinse it several times with fresh water.

Once clean, most centers ask that you remove and throw away the cap if it’s smaller than two inches. At that point, move it to your curbside recycling bin for recycling.

#2 – Make Smarter Purchases

When you’re shopping for new items. Look for plastic goods that are made with post-consumer recycled plastic. Every little bit counts. You’d be surprised by what can be made from plastic bags and other items. An outdoor patio rug woven from used plastic bags is one idea. It’s waterproof and adds a decorative touch. Buy a reusable water or coffee cup made from recycled plastics.

Pay attention to the plastic items you do buy. Other (#7) plastics are harder to recycle because they contain a mix of resins. If a specific type of plastic is harder to recycle in your area, try to avoid that plastic when you’re purchasing items. You should also purchase refillable cleaners and soap products. When you run out, you’re not buying a new bottle. You buy a pouch of the liquid that’s poured into the bottle you still have at home.

#3 – Reuse as Much as Possible

For the plastic items you do buy, try to reuse them. For example, a plastic laundry detergent bucket could be washed out and used to collect food scraps. When the bucket is full, bring it out to your compost pile, rinse it out, dump the water onto the top of the compost pile, and bring the bucket in for the next week.

A plastic cupcake holder that’s no longer needed could be turned into an art caddy for little kids. Fill it with crayons, colored pencils, and squares of scrap paper for art projects. Plastic food containers that are starting to blister can be used as coasters under houseplants to prevent water from getting onto end tables and window sills.

#4 – Set Aside Plastic Items You Cannot Recycle in a Curbside Bin

While some items may not be accepted by your curbside recycling program, that doesn’t mean it’s not recyclable. Plastic grocery bags and mailers are accepted in bins at area retailers like grocery stores. Look for these bins in the entrances or near the bottle redemption area.

You might be able to recycle the rest of your plastics at a local facility. Many take everything from plastic buckets to plant pots. Save these items up in boxes and stop by your nearest recycling center to recycle them when you have time.

Don’t let confusion keep you from recycling all plastics. Visit Recycle Nation for a list of the different recycling centers near you that take plastic bottles and other items. Enter your ZIP code and use the list of centers to find the one closest to you. The results include a physical address and phone number to make it easy to call with questions or get driving directions.