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Advocates say New York needs to cut plastic packaging in half to help save the planet

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 in February 2019.

The New York State legislature is back in session and environmentalists hope they will act on a series of measures to combat climate change and clean up pollution. Among other measures, they are trying once again to get a law that reduces plastic packaging passed before the New York State Legislature adjourns for the year in June.

The Plastic Packaging Reduction Act (New York Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act), has three components, says Judith Enck, a former regional administrator of the EPA who now heads Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics.

Enck says plastics recycling has been an “abysmal failure,” with only 6% of packaging and single-use products being recycled.

The measure would cut in half all of the plastic packaging that is now used.

“These goals are incremental,” said Enck, who said the bill calls for a 10% reduction in plastic packaging after three years, a 20% reduction after five years, a 30% reduction after eight years and a 40% reduction after 10 years.

"We get to 50% reduction after 12 years,” Enck said. “It's a glide path, and it is a very reasonable schedule. Big companies know how to innovate when the law requires them to do that.”

The bill also bans toxic chemicals in plastic packaging and imposes a fee on producers of the materials.

In addition, it makes illegal a form of plastics recycling known as chemical recycling. That process heats the plastic waste to a high temperature and converts it into a form of fossil fuel.

Many county leaders around the state support the bill. Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger is a former state senator. She says it would help counties manage increasingly expensive waste disposal.

“It will save upstate taxpayers as much as $150 million a year,” said Metzger, who said the fees would provide local governments with “desperately needed revenue” to upgrade local recycling and reuse programs.

“Critically, it shifts the cost from our communities to the corporations that are responsible for generating (the waste),” Metzger said. “Which is the just and fair approach to addressing the plastics and waste crisis.”

The bill has 80 co-sponsors in the state Assembly and 34 in the state Senate. The environmental committee chairs in both houses back the bill, and it’s been approved in their committees. But it remains stuck in higher-ranking committees it must pass through in order to make it to the floor.

Enck says the public also backs the idea, but she says the plastics and chemical industries oppose it and have been fighting behind the scenes to kill or weaken the legislation.

“There is ferocious industry opposition,” Enck said. “And that is what we are up against in Albany this year.”

In a statement, Ross Eisenberg head of America’s Plastic Makers, which is part of the American Chemistry Council, says the group is opposed to the bill in its current form.

Eisenberg says the proposal “misses the mark and will have unintended consequences” by eliminating packaging he says keeps people safe. He says the measure also closes off “innovative solutions” like chemical recycling, and would result in more plastics ending up in landfills.

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.