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Environmentalists say cutting the amount of plastic packaging in products by half is a top goal

Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College and a former EPA regional administrator, gives a petition to an aide to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The petition asks the Legislature to approve a bill to reduce plastic packaging by 50% over the next 12 years.
Karen DeWitt
/
New York State Public Radio
In this file photo from May 2023, Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College and a former EPA regional administrator, gives a petition to an aide to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The petition asks the Legislature to approve a bill to reduce plastic packaging by 50% over the next 12 years.

Environmental groups in New York say a top priority in 2024 will be getting a law approved that would cut the amount of plastic packaging in consumer products in half over the 12 years and help combat climate change. 

It faces fierce opposition from the plastics industry.

The bill would also step up recycling efforts and ban a form of plastics recycling known as chemical recycling, which heats the plastic waste to a high temperature and converts it into a form of fossil fuel.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner with Environmental Advocates said without the law, municipalities across the state will have to pay increasing sums of money to cart away the plastic.

“We can't recycle our way out of this problem that we see growing around us every day, because only 6% of plastic actually gets recycled,” Fajans-Turner said. “That means 94% of the plastic we think we're recycling actually ends up in landfills across New York and New Jersey and beyond. The only way forward is to reduce how much plastic we use.”

Last year, a similar bill failed to pass either house of the Legislature. Senate sponsor Peter Harckham said the measure was approved by the Environmental Conservation Committee, which he chairs. But he said the legislation, which combined two previous bills, came together too late in the session to gain enough momentum to make it to the floor for a vote. 

“I'm much more optimistic now, given that we have a full year,” Harckham said. “We've got a clean slate, and people now are aware of what's in the combined bill, and we're optimistic about its chances this year.”

Judith Enck, a former regional administrator of the EPA who now heads Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics, said supporters will work to make sure that the powerful plastics industry does not succeed in weakening the bill or creating loopholes that will undermine the measure. 

She predicted it will be one of the most “spirited” discussions at the Capitol this year.

“This is David versus Goliath on steroids,” Enck said.

Craig Cookson, who heads up the plastics sustainability office at the American Chemistry Council, is lobbying to make changes to the bill — but he said his group is not against having a plastic packaging reduction law in New York.

“We believe that it could have a positive impact on reducing waste, recovering more plastics instead of sending them to landfills and incinerators as well as other materials, and then getting those plastics and other materials back into recycled content in our future packaging and products,” Cookson said.

But he said chemical recycling, which the industry calls advanced recycling, needs to be part of the plan. Cookson said while it’s easier to recycle bottles and cans, other plastic products are more challenging.

“Things like pouches and tubes and films, those are harder to recycle,” he said. “And that's where advanced recycling complements mechanical recycling, by enabling us to take those plastics, take them back down to their basic chemical components and rebuild them into new molecules again.”

Cookson said the Chemical Council would like to see plastics that are processed in advanced recycling plants count toward the overall goal of recycling reduction.

Cookson said the final version of a plastic packaging reduction bill needs the backing of industry stakeholders, including plastics manufactures, recyclers, and other related businesses like waste-hauling companies in order for it to work.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.