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New York legislators take aim at reducing plastic waste

New York lawmakers have proposed legislation that would require a significant reduction in plastic packaging produced in the state. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Mary Altaffer
Associated Press
New York lawmakers have proposed legislation that would require a significant reduction in plastic packaging produced in the state.

When New Yorkers toss something into the recycling bin, the expectation is that the item will be turned into something else. But it turns out that’s actually pretty rare when it comes to plastic.

Most plastic ultimately winds up in landfills — even if it initially was sorted for recycling.

“There's very little plastic that can be recycled,” said Manhattan Assemblymember Deborah Glick. Glick is the lead Assembly sponsor for a bill gaining momentum in New York’s state legislature. It would require companies to pay to manage their waste and reduce their plastic packaging production.

It’s one of the major bills pending in the legislature that takes aim at curbing New York’s plastic production and consumption amid growing concerns over the environmental and health effects of plastic waste.

The legislation, called the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act, places more requirements and government oversight onto companies that produce plastic waste. It also would require producers to reduce their plastic packaging by 50% within 12 years.

“It incentivizes the use of recycled material, and there's very little plastic that can be recycled,” said Glick. “So there's an incentive to use materials other than plastic, and it encourages reuse and refill.”

Other states, like Maine, Oregon and California, have passed similar legislation. But if New York’s version passes, it would have some of the strongest requirements.

A version of the bill was first presented to the legislature several years ago and failed to pass. Since then, concerns over plastic production and waste have only grown. A 2022 report from Greenpeace and analyzed by NPR, found that less than 6% of plastic in the U.S. is recycled. And a recent report from the Center for Climate Integrity found that the plastic industry has long known mass plastic recycling isn’t viable.

Some members of the plastic industry have pushed back against the bill, saying the requirements are impractical. Glick said she’s hopeful the legislation will pass this year.

In the meantime, local groups in the Southern Tier have advocated for other waste-reduction strategies.

Yayoi Koizumi leads the local sustainability group Zero Waste Ithaca, which has spearheaded several waste-reduction programs in the city. Those include a program called “Bring Your Own” that encourages customers and businesses to generate less waste by eliminating single-use plastics, like coffee cups and take-out containers. Instead, customers can bring their own reusable mugs, utensils and containers.

This kind of initiative used to be more niche, and some state and municipal health codes still prohibit customers from using their own containers. But that’s slowly changing as concerns over the health and environmental effects of plastic waste grow.

California passed a bring-your-own container law in 2019, permitting the practice across the state. And a bill pending in New York’s legislature would require restaurants to allow customers to bring reusable containers for leftovers and drinks.

A sign at Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca advertises the
Rebecca Redelmeier / WKSG News
A sign at Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca advertises the Bring Your Own program to encourage customers to use their own mug. (Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News)

The program is already popular in some places in Ithaca, like Gimme! Coffee, where customers use their own mugs to receive 10 percent off any beverage. It’s what Koizumi called a “downstream solution” to the plastic problem — it asks consumers to reduce plastic use, rather than producers.

She said this strategy works well in partnership with “upstream solutions” aimed at reducing plastic on the production end, encouraging everyday consumers to think more critically about the plastic they use and shifting the norms of how plastic is used.

“Any zero waste actions, if you're doing it alone, it's like you're one crazy person. It's like, why are you doing it?” said Koizumi. “But if you do it as a group, it can start to create some buzz.”