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NYS Environmentalists say cutting plastic packaging in half is a chief goal in 2024

A bale of recycled plastics awaits shipping at the Waste Management/Recycle America in February 2019.
Scott Willis
A bale of recycled plastics awaits shipping at the Waste Management/Recycle America plant in Salina in February 2019.

Environmental groups in New York say a top priority in 2024 will be getting a plastics reduction law approved that would cut plastic packaging in half over the next decade, and help combat climate change. It faces fierce opposition from the plastics industry.

The bill would cut the amount of plastic packaging in consumer products in half over a period of twelve years, and step up recycling efforts. It would also 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, says without the law, municipalities across the state will have to pay increasing sums of money to cart away all of 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 that 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, says the measure was approved by the Environmental Conservation Committee, which he chairs, but he says 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 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, says in 2024, supports will work to make sure that the powerful plastics industry does not succeed in weakening the bill, or creating loopholes that that will undermine the measure. She predicts 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 heads up the plastics sustainability office at the American Chemistry Council, and is lobbying to make changes to the bill.

He says 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 product,” Cookson said.

But he says chemical recycling, which the industry calls advanced recycling, needs to be part of the plan. Cookson says 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 says the Chemical Council would like to see plastics that are processed in advanced recycling plants count toward the overall goal of recycling reduction.

Cookson says 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 to work.

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.