We’re in a bind. The United States is the #1 producer of plastic in the world. We’re incredibly good at making it; in 2018, our nation produced 35.7 million tons of plastic, according to the American Chemistry Council. But we aren’t very good at implementing ways to reduce, reuse, or even dispose of it, and it’s piling up. Only a small fraction is recyclable, and what doesn’t wind up in landfills or incinerators is blowing all over our beaches, parks, and streams. Most of the estimated 9 million metric tons of plastic that enter the oceans each year is washed in from land-based litter.
There are many effective solutions to this, from banning single-use plastic items and the intentional release of balloons, to requiring that packaging be reduced or designed for reuse or refill, to requiring that manufacturers and corporations — not taxpayers — shoulder the financial responsibility for the avalanche of excess packaging they put on the market. All of these ideas fall under the rubric of “Extended Producer Responsibility,” or EPR, a legislative fix that offers what is perhaps our best and most realistic hope for breaking free from the mountain of plastic pollution.
But we have to get the details right, which is a dilemma because New York State is now at a crossroads. In her proposed state budget, Gov. Kathy Hochul included legislation that contains EPR provisions, but the proposal includes serious problems such as placing the packaging industry itself in charge of EPR with limited regulatory oversight. This is like putting the cigarette industry in charge of reducing smoking.
An effective EPR program would establish environmental standards for packaging. It would require that companies reduce what they make, and whatever cannot be reused or refilled should be made from recycled content, or at least be easy to recycle. The most toxic ingredients need to be eliminated, plastic burning needs to be prohibited, and there needs to be strong oversight of the program.
Moreover, it is time to modernize the state “Bottle Bill,” which has not been updated in 40 years. We have more beverage types than we used to, and a nickel doesn’t go as far. Deposits should be increased to a dime , and be required for liquor, wine, and the gamut of noncarbonated beverages that New Yorkers now enjoy.
Hochul’s EPR proposal excludes every one of these important provisions. Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chair of the chamber’s environmental conservation committee, will soon introduce a strong EPR bill that will require that packaging be reduced. The rest would have to be recycled or made from recycled materials. That will save local tax dollars. The less that is generated, the less local governments will have to collect and handle. It will significantly reduce toxics in packaging, protecting our health. And it will not allow plastic burning to count as recycling.
New Yorkers will support effective solutions — once they are made available. Given the shortcomings in Hochul’s bill and the promise in Englebright’s, let’s put EPR aside to work on after the state budget is adopted. After all, this is not a state spending issue. At that point, Albany lawmakers can choose which path they will put us on. They can choose the path that leads to real reductions in plastic waste. Or they can take the path that leads to minor tweaks in a broken system that got us buried in trash in the first place.
This guest essay reflects the views of Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator.