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Supporters of reducing plastic packaging say a hearing on the bill signals progress

Judith Enck, left, holds up a banner in May pushing for the reduced plastics packaging legislation.
Karen DeWitt
NYS public radio
Judith Enck, left, holds up a banner in May pushing for the reduced plastics packaging legislation.

Advocates for a measure to reduce plastic packaging by 50 percent in New York over the next decade say they are encouraged by a joint legislative hearing recently held on the bill.

The legislation would phase in reductions in plastic packaging over several years and ban a practice known as “chemical recycling.” That’s where heat or chemical reactions break down some plastic materials so they can eventually be used in new products.

The bill would also ban some toxins now found in packaging, including heavy metals and PFAS chemicals.

Assembly Environmental Chair Deborah Glick says there’s an urgent need to get a handle on what she says is an excessive use of plastics.

“Younger people, our kids, are telling us that we have to do a better job because the world that we are giving them is not something that's sustainable,” Glick said. “And they intend to see that we take action and take action promptly.”

Judith Enck, a former regional administrator of the EPA who now heads Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics, testified in support of the bill at the hearing.

“I... emphasized that reduction of plastics is far more important than recycling of plastics, because plastic recycling has been an abysmal failure,” Enck said. “We need to be honest that plastic recycling doesn't work. So we have to reduce it.”

Enck says for every three pounds of fish in the world’s oceans today, there is one pound of plastic debris. She says if nothing changes, it’s estimated there will be one pound of plastic for every pound of fish by 2050.

Craig Cookson, with plastics sustainability at the American Chemistry Council, is among those speaking against the measure. He says instead of mandating a reduction in plastic packaging, he favors improving the recycling markets and better educating the public about recycling. Cookson says consumers want more recycled products.

“Industry wants, because their customers are demanding, that they have more recycled content in their packaging and products,” Cookson said. “And so industry is working to get more of that.”

Cookson says there's no need for a ban on chemical recycling, which his organization calls advanced recycling. He says the process has been misunderstood, and that there is no burning involved.

“That’s a complete mischaracterization of the technology,” Cokkson said. “These technologies work in an oxygen-deprived, very low oxygen environment, so there is no combustion.”

Cookson says the process uses heat and other catalysts to break down the plastics to their basic chemical components.

“That feedstock of that raw material becomes an alternative feedstock to oil and natural gas in the production of new plastics or chemicals again,” he said.

Enck and other environmental advocates say it’s the chemicals and plastics industries that are mischaracterizing the process.

“They say there's no oxygen in the chamber, and therefore you don't get a flame,” Enck said. “Chemical recycling is an attempt, I underline attempt, to keep plastic at a very high temperature. And typically, it gets turned into fossil fuel, or synthetic gas. The last thing the world needs is more fossil fuel.”

Enck says the fact that the chairs of the State Legislature’s environmental conservation committees held a daylong hearing is a good sign that there will be a law passed in 2024 that reduces plastic packaging. She says groups like hers will have to make sure that the final legislation actually does what it says and does not include any loopholes.

Cookson, with the Chemistry Council, isn’t giving up either.

“There's a lot of innings to play in this this game,” Cookson said.

Senate Environmental Chair Peter Harckham says lawmakers will continue to hear from the “stakeholders” and try to address their concerns as they work toward a final bill.

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.