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Packaging reduction bill shows promise of becoming law

A woman in a black blazer and slacks hands a large petition to a woman in a green shirt and black slacks as people holds signs on the steps behind them.
Karen DeWitt
Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College, and former EPA Regional Administrator, gives a petition to an aide to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, asking the legislature to approve a bill to reduce packaging by 50% over the next twelve years.

With just seven days left of the official 2023 legislative session, advocates for a measure that would reduce plastic packaging by half say their bill is gaining momentum. They hope it could become law before lawmakers are set to adjourn for the summer on June 8th.

Judith Enck is the former regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who is now head of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College. She says the chairs of the environmental committees in the Senate and Assembly are the bill’s prime sponsors, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have expressed interest in advancing the measure over the next two weeks.

“This is a moment for the New York State Legislature to provide vital leadership in the next two weeks. And two weeks at the end of the legislative session is really like two months,” Enck said. “They can get it done if it's a priority for the speaker, and the majority leader.”

Enck says plastic pollution is so insidious that traces of plastics are found in drinking water and the human body, including in some newborn babies.

Plus, she says, it’s annoying. Enck used as an example a package her colleague received from Amazon. The wood-made alternative to a plastic highlighter pen that she ordered came wrapped in several packaging layers like a Russian nesting doll.

In all, she unwrapped two plastic envelopes, a glassine envelope and a paper one, and finally a clear plastic wrapper containing the pens.

“Why do we need this level of packaging for wooden highlighters?” Enck said. “Amazon would save money by just sending it perhaps in a little recyclable cardboard box. They're not going to change unless the law changes.”

The bill would gradually phase in the 50 percent packaging reduction requirement over a period of 12 years. It would also ban a practice sought by the industry -- the burning of some plastic packaging items that are not able to reach overcapacity recycling markets. It would also ban toxins, including heavy metals and PFAS chemicals, in all packaging.

Four other states have similar laws on the books, including California. Supporters believe that the combined market share of New York and California would likely result in the companies reducing their packaging for other states and nations, as well.

Opposition includes large companies including Amazon, McDonald’s and Mars Candy Co., as well as the American Chemistry Council, a plastics manufacturing lobby group. Enck says they’ve been fighting the bill.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” she said.

Advocates say polls show that the public is on their side. They delivered a petition including 13,000 e-signatures to the Assembly and Senate leadership offices. Lawmakers were off for the long holiday weekend before resuming session Tuesday for a two-week sprint to adjournment.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.