Like cities and states across the country, New York has seen fierce debates over bans and fines on single-use plastic in recent years. The plastics industry has argued that the water bottles, takeout containers, and milk jugs New Yorkers consume at a ferocious rate can be efficiently and ecologically recycled, keeping plastic out of landfills by molding it into new products.
But across the US, less than 9 percent of plastic waste is actually repurposed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The rest is either incinerated, buried in a landfill (where it releases methane), or left to pollute rivers, beaches and oceans. Meanwhile, cities and towns spend millions of dollars to collect and sort the plastic items we put out on the curb.
Now Governor Kathy Hochul is proposing to shift the burden of waste to the companies that produce it: the manufacturers of cans, bottles, paper, and plastic. The notion that companies should be made to deal with their own waste — known by the infelicitous term “extended producer responsibility,” or EPR — is gaining ground across the country. Maine and Oregon passed EPR laws last year and legislators have proposed bills in several other states, including California, Hawaii, Maryland, Washington, and Massachusetts.
In her 2022 State of the State report, Hochul promised to introduce a program that “requires producers — not taxpayers — to cover the cost of recycling.” She said New York must ensure that manufacturers are “financially responsible for their products through the entire product lifecycle, incentivizing them to reduce waste, invest in recycling infrastructure, make products that are easier to recycle, and support a circular economy.” She then included a version of EPR in her executive budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.
Green groups in New York have advocated for an extended producer responsibility program for years, but many of them — including NYPIRG and Beyond Plastics — opposed Hochul’s proposal, which they say is too weak and deferential to industry. They worry that passing the governor’s proposal would doom future efforts to pass a stronger EPR law. Industry lobbies, meanwhile, have offered qualified support of the plan while pushing Hochul to water it down even further.
As supporters and opponents of Hochul’s proposal debate everything from the presence of industry representatives on advisory committees to the very definition of “recycling” itself, environmental advocacy groups are left with a difficult choice — should they pressure Hochul to strengthen her EPR proposal or ask legislators to scrap it and start over?
Hochul’s proposal would task an advisory committee with recommending annual minimum rates for recovery, recycling, and post-consumer recycled content. This advisory committee would include representatives from the packaging and paper industry, as well as those from municipalities and environmental groups.
Manufacturers would then have to develop plans to meet those recommendations and submit them for approval to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) by April 2025. Producers would be required to start implementing their programs no later than a year later.
NYPIRG and Beyond Plastics say this approach would give manufacturers too much power to set their own goals and evaluate their own performance.
“It’s a conflict of interest for industry to have a role in deciding goals and performance standards,” said Anne Rabe, NYPIRG’s environmental policy director. Her group and others say standards should be set and compliance monitored by the DEC, which should be provided with sufficient funding to conduct meaningful oversight of the industry.
However, advocates aren’t united on the question of industry involvement. Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation voters and a former chief of staff at the Department of Environmental Conservation, said it is reasonable for the industry to play a role in designing programs and setting standards. “They’re paying for it,” she pointed out. Even so, she agreed that DEC will ultimately need to provide oversight.
Meanwhile, industry representatives want even more involvement in setting recycling standards.
In February, 36 industry lobbies — including the Plastics Industry Association, the New York State Distillers Guild, and the Personal Care Products Council — released a statement arguing that producers should have a say in the definition of what is “readily recyclable” and that manufacturers alone, not the advisory board on which they would hold several seats, should propose minimum recovery, recycling, and post-consumer recycled content rates. The groups also objected to the requirement that manufacturers reimburse municipalities for the full cost of their recycling programs.
Bottle Deposits & Plastic Packaging
Environmental groups say any EPR plan must expand New York’s bottle bill, which they point out was passed 40 years ago and is overdue for an upgrade. The law requires consumers to pay a 5-cent deposit on carbonated drinks, beer, and water bottles; advocates would like to see wine, liquor, and all other noncarbonated drinks covered as well, and the deposit increased from 5 to 10 cents, to encourage more returns.
Doubling the deposit would also help the “canners” — the 10,000 people (in New York City alone) who make a living by collecting discarded cans and bottles, often piling them into overloaded shopping carts and bringing them to redemption centers.
“The bottle bill reduced roadside litter by 70 percent, and these are the people who make that happen,” said Ryan Carson, NYPIRG’s campaign organizer on the bottle bill. “Those folks could use a raise.”
Hochul’s proposal does not mandate reductions in packaging; without such mandates, advocates say the production of throw-away plastic will only increase. The World Economic Forum predicts that plastic manufacturing will double in the next 20 years, as dozens of new US plants are coming online.
“The fossil fuel industry knows it is losing market share in electricity, in cars, so the remaining growth industry is in plastics,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional director who now serves as the president of Beyond Plastics, a project at Bennington College.
The plastics manufacturing lobby does not deny that it wants to produce more plastic. Instead, it has tried to argue that the use of plastics actually contributes to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
“Plastics are essential for New York to meet its aggressive climate goals,” said Craig Cookson, senior director for plastics sustainability for the American Chemistry Council, which represents large plastics manufacturers. Cookson’s explanation for this seemingly absurd claim is that the widespread use of lightweight plastic components in cars has led to increased fuel efficiency, decreasing the total amount of greenhouse gases produced by vehicles.
The governor’s plan allows the “thermal treatment” of plastic waste to be considered a form of recycling, so long as the treatment involves the “substantial production” of a new product or raw material. Green groups are concerned this could open the door to pyrolysis, a controversial technique to process plastics that its proponents sometimes call “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling.”
Unlike regular “mechanical” recycling, which simply melts old plastic, pyrolysis heats up old plastic in an oxygen-deprived environment until it is broken down into its molecular components.
Chrystal Boone, a spokesperson for pyrolysis plant operator Brightmark, said that the raw material produced by pyrolysis can be used to create new products. (Brightmark is currently exploring facility sites in the northeast region of the country.)
The plastics industry says this technology is part of the solution to the climate crisis.
“Any extended producer responsibility proposal must include advanced recycling, as it will help decrease plastic waste and will support continued growth towards reaching and maintaining sustainability goals,” the Plastics Industry Association wrote in an emailed statement.
Critics say pyrolysis is a false solution and certainly not a green technology. A recent analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council of eight chemical recycling plants in the US found that many of them were not actually recycling at all. Most of the plastic processed by these plants was converted into low-quality fuel, not new containers or consumer products. While chemical “recyclers” promote the industry as environmentally friendly, the NRDC report found that these facilities produced dangerous air emissions and toxic waste, some of which was dumped in landfills. The report also found that such facilities are often located in low-income, majority-Black areas.
Cookson, of the American Chemistry Council, objected to the idea that pyrolysis facilities don’t produce new products. He said companies from Wendy’s to Warby Parker have announced their intention to use plastics derived from advanced recycling. “Saying that these facilities are producing fuel is talking about the past, not the present or the future,” he told New York Focus.
With Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie looking to keep non-fiscal policy out of the budget, the fate of the governor’s plan is unclear.
But Tighe at the League of Conservation Voters thinks Hochul’s proposal is “an excellent start” and can be improved with some tweaks. “I’m concerned that if it doesn’t get done in the budget it won’t happen at all,” she said. A new bill, she believes, will encounter heavy headwinds. “Every lobbyist in Albany has a client who has a pet issue on this.”
Rather than tinker with amendments to Hochul’s proposal, green groups like NYPIRG and Beyond Plastic say legislators should scrap it and start over. They are expected to support a bill that Steve Englebright, chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation committee, is in the process of drafting. Stephen Liss, counsel to the committee chair, told New York Focus that Englebright’s bill will be introduced in the Environmental Conservation committee “very, very soon.”
Englebright’s bill will include more of the features that environmentalists believe are essential to reducing waste and its associated greenhouse gas emissions. It will require reductions in the amount of packaging produced and “laddered” increases in the amount of recycled and recyclable content in manufactured goods. Unlike Hochul’s proposal, it will not allow “advanced recycling.”
Rabe, NYPIRG’s environmental policy director, noted that the mass production and disposal of single-use plastics is a relatively recent phenomenon. “When I was a girl, we got our milk delivered in glass bottles and the farmer would pick them up when he made the next delivery,” she said. “We bought our flour in big sacks.”
While the days of milk deliveries and flour sacks may seem to belong to a distant, sepia-tinted past, Rabe and other environmental advocates say we need to radically rethink the way we package and distribute goods — and part of that will mean using the kinds of low-tech, reusable materials that served us well until the era of petrochemicals.
Correction: A previous version of this article listed Environmental Advocates of New York as one of the groups opposed to Hochul’s proposed legislation. In fact, the group has said it would like to see significant changes to the proposal, not that it opposes it. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated that Brightmark is looking to build a pyrolysis plan near Syracuse. In fact, the company has only said that it is looking for potential plant sites in the Northeast.