5 Min Read
California changes plastic container rule

By Victor Bell, president, EPI



Caulking tubes


In 1991, California enacted the rigid plastic packaging container (RPPC) law to reduce the amount of plastic waste disposed in California landfills and increase the use of recycled post-consumer plastic in packaging.

Under the law as originally passed, an RPPC meant a relatively inflexible container made entirely from plastic with a capacity of 8 ounces or more, up to 5 gallons, that was capable of multiple re-closures and contained products sold or offered for sale in the state (packaging of food, drugs, toxic or hazardous products was exempt). All subject RPPCs were required to be made with at least 25 percent post-consumer plastic or meet one of the other statutory compliance options (source reduction or reuse, subject to specific criteria).

While the RPPC law was intended to clearly establish who must comply with its requirements and how, inconsistent application and enforcement often made it challenging to understand whether certain types of packaging were subject. To clarify ambiguities about covered containers, and incorporate previous statutory changes, in 2007 the California Integrated Waste Management Board initiated the process of updating the regulations that detail the law's requirements and procedures. The revisions, passed in 2012, take effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

What's in, what's out
To create a more level playing field, and to address newer types of packaging, several changes to California's regulations will provide more definitive guidance on subject RPPCs. Among the key issues clarified by the updates are the following: 

Number of closures: As originally enacted, the law only regulated those RPPCs "capable of multiple closures," meaning those that could be closed and re-closed with an attached or unattached relatively inflexible lid. For example, caulking tubes sold with a lid were regulated, while those without were not. Moreover, with this definition, identical containers that were heat or sonically sealed were exempt. In these examples, both containers will now be regulated.

To ensure consistent application, beginning in January, any package capable of at least one closure, including during the manufacturing process, will be subject to the regulations. 

Hinges and handles: Previously under the law, all-plastic containers with a plastic handle or hinge were subject, while the same RPPCs with a metal handle or hinge were not because they were not made entirely of plastic. Now, the latter will be subject as well to eliminate disparate treatment of similar containers that only differ in their incidental packaging elements.

Foldable containers: The law's definition of "relatively inflexible container" covers those packages that are not flexible and can maintain their shape while holding a product. But it wasn't obvious to all whether foldable or collapsible containers were also regulated. The updates to the regulations make clear that containers that are capable of being folded or collapsed into a more compact form when not holding a product are also subject. 

Blister packs: Blister packages that have a carded back remain exempt under the new law because they have at least one side that is not made of plastic. However, for trapped blister packages, the RPPC between two pieces of board is subject.

Who's subject?
The law applies to manufacturers/producers/generators of products that are sold or offered for sale in regulated RPPCs as defined by law. To clarify who qualifies, the updated regulation includes factors for identifying responsibility, including:

• Ownership of the brand name (any company whose name, or any of its brand names or subsidiaries or affiliates, appears on the container label of a product that is sold or offered for sale in the state);

• Primary control over product design;

• Primary control over container design.

That doesn't mean, however, that every company will be required to certify compliance. Under the law, the state will hold regular audits. At least one year prior to the audit period, a sampling from the group of known product manufacturers—either those who were previously found to be non-compliant or compliant, or those who have yet to be the subject of an audit—will be selected and notified that they may be required to certify compliance. 

Compliance criteria
Since the law is designed to encourage use of recycled materials and divert plastic from landfills, companies have several options for demonstrating compliance for their containers. RPPCs must be: 

• made from at least 25 percent post-consumer resin; 

• source reduced (lightweighted) by 10 percent;

• reused or refilled at least five times;

• have a recycling rate of 45 percent if it is a brand-specific or a particular type of RPPC.

Companies can average the first three listed above based on data either specific to containers sold in California or nationally. While averaging may be based on an entire product line or sub-lines, an average can only include RPPCs for which the same compliance option is claimed (companies can show compliance using multiple methods and an average for each).

A couple of notable updates to the compliance options effective Jan. 1, 2013, include:

• For companies claiming 25 percent post-consumer material as the compliance method, resin switching is not allowed.

• Only commonly disposed post-industrial material can be credited to the post-consumer material requirements.

• A new compliance option allows California-generated post-consumer material used in other products or packaging to be credited toward the PCM-content option.

Be prepared
How can companies ensure compliance with certification?

• Be in compliance with California's RPPC law at all times.


• Secure supporting documentation that substantiates your compliance claims, the formulas for which vary based on the compliance option selected.

• Retain your records for three years (the originally-enacted law required documentation to be retained for four years).

For those who fail to comply, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery can assess penalties of up to $50,000 for any violation of the law, not to exceed total penalties of $100,000 annually.


Victor Bell is president of Environmental Packaging Intl. (EPI), a consultancy that advises global brand owners and retailers on a range of environmental compliance, product stewardship and sustainability issues. For more information, visit www.enviro-pac.com or call 401-423-2225.



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