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Bill shifts reducing plastic and paper waste in New York to manufacturers

Plastic piles up at recycling facility in Salem, Oregon.
Laura Sullivan
Plastic piles up at recycling facility in Salem, Oregon.

A bill proposed in New York would put the onus on corporations to reduce the amount of plastic and paper packaging they use, and relieve the burden placed on local governments. The goal is to reduce the tons of garbage that ends up at landfills.

The measure would require companies with a net annual income of over $1 million to reduce consumer packaging, improve recycling efforts, and help update recycling infrastructure.

“New York produces approximately 15 million tons of waste a year and much of that goes to landfills, and what happens is the toxic material also then stays in our environment in perpetuity – in our water, in our fatty cells, in our bodies, and it’s not healthy, it’s a threat to public health, it’s a threat to the environment,” said State Senator Peter Harckham, chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee and chief sponsor of the bill.

On Long Island, over 200,000 tons of solid waste is thrown away, with an additional 400,000 tons of ash disposed of from waste incinerators.

Waste from over 2 million people ends up at the last remaining landfill on Long Island. The Brookhaven Landfill is poised to stop accepting construction debris in 2024, and then deposit ash waste until capacity is reached.

“We're burning garbage and we're throwing it in landfills. We did that 1,000 years ago. We are using 18th century technology in a 21st century world,” said Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “This legislation is about updating our policy on waste management to meet the needs of today.”

New York already requires manufacturers to reduce waste produced in paint cans, pharmaceuticals, and carpets. Maine, Oregon, Colorado, and California also have packaging producer responsibility laws. Yet, legislation in previous years that would hold producers accountable for the waste they produce has failed in the Empire state.

“Corporations, to date, have taken no responsibility for the waste stream that they generate. Well, it's time for corporations to take out their own trash. And we can do that,” Esposito said.

During the annual State of the State address, Governor Kathy Hochul also renewed her support for a law establishing extended producer responsibility for packaging.

It’s estimated that shifting the responsibility to packaging producers would save New York City $100 million a year, and the rest of local governments in the state more than $120 million a year, in waste management costs.

Environmentalists said the legislation also helps New York get closer to its goal of decreasing greenhouse gas emission by 40% before 2030. Waste management accounts for about 12% of the state's total output.

“We generate about 7 million tons of paper and packaging waste each year across the entire state. And yet our recycling system … remains a little broken,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “New Yorkers recycle only about 17% of our waste. And that is pretty abysmal.”

Harckham said he wants to boost recycling rates in the state. He said the average New Yorker generates about five pounds of trash daily.

Under the proposal, companies would be required to reduce packaging by 10% within three years, 20% by five years and 50% by 12 years.

Eligible manufacturers would also be required to join a Producer's Responsibility Organization within a year to plan for complying to recycling rules, develop infrastructure to financially support local government recycling programs, and reduce toxins in their packaging.

“We need to immediately address one of the dire problems of our age: the tremendous amount of waste, much of it recyclable, that we create each day—and that costs taxpayers and municipalities hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted carting and recycling costs,” Harckham said.

“The only way we can begin to mitigate the growing issue of waste pollution, which threatens our natural resources, is for the initial producers of this waste to be fully involved with the end-of-life solutions,” he continued.

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J.D. Allen