Bags of plastic bottles are loaded onto a truck at...

Bags of plastic bottles are loaded onto a truck at Beverage Barn in East Meadow. Credit: Howard Simmons

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul is proposing a fundamental change in recycling paper products and packaging that would require manufacturers rather than taxpayers to expand and pay for increased recycling.

The concept is to send less paper and packaging such as plastics to landfills and to require producers to use packaging material that is easier to recycle. Under the idea, if producers don't hit targets to create more recyclable material or reduce their waste stream, they would be charged fees that would go to municipalities to offset recycling costs.

Supporters say these "extended producer responsibility" programs, or EPRs, recycle more materials with the cost born by producers, who have an incentive to reduce their waste. Critics, however, say they are wary of creating a new system reliant on cooperation with producers when existing programs — such as the bottle deposit law — are proven successes.

The proposal is similar to ones in place in Maine and Oregon and much of Europe and Canada. The programs seek to reduce waste and carbon emissions by making better decisions in production of packaging products, including bottles. The movement was prompted in 2017 when China stopped importing recycled U.S. materials.

The Senate and Assembly are considering the proposal now. The chambers are preparing their one-house budget responses this month and could choose to support the idea, propose changes, reject it or push it off for negotiation after the state budget, which is due April 1.

"It needs to be a priority," said Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee chairman Steven Englebright (D-Setauket). "I don’t think it makes sense necessarily to be in the budget, but she essentially erected a billboard with a flashing light saying, ‘This matters,’ and I applaud that."

"I think there is still room for improvement and we are looking at some possible suggestions," Englebright told Newsday.

Critics of EPRs, however, warn the fees will hurt business or be passed on to consumers, while ignoring the chance to expand proven recycling programs, such as the state’s 40-year-old bottle deposit law.

Yet Hochul said the key to greatly expanding recycling is to require producers to "reduce waste at its source." Producers could do that by changing packaging, including paper and plastic, into forms that are more easily recycled, such as clear plastic containers rather than those with color. Producers also could package products in reusable containers mailed or dropped off at collection points. The proposal would also create an incentive for producers to modernize their own recycling facilities.

"This landmark proposal will help New York reduce its emissions and stabilize the recycling market, while supporting our struggling municipalities," according to Hochul’s budget proposal.

Many packaging companies nationwide have opposed EPRs, calling the incentive fees a tax in disguise that won’t appreciably increase recycling. Analysts say the fee would likely be passed along to consumers.

The state Business Council opposes Hochul’s proposal and urges making existing systems more efficient while spreading the cost.

"We can and should do more, and spend more, to make our existing solid waste and recycling system work better," according to a statement by the business group. "What we do not need is to turn the current system on its head … and is not necessary to improve the state’s recycling and waste reduction outcomes."

Environmental groups have supported the concept of producer responsibility measures. But in New York, there is a concern because in order for EPRs to work, producers must be on board. Some worry the producers will have too much say in setting their standards and for establishing fees.

"The plan is seriously flawed with a business-dominated advisory committee, which could end up being the ‘foxes guarding the chicken coop," said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

He also said the new system would take years to implement and that it could block proposed expansion of the bottle law and its 5-cent deposits, which have widely been seen as a proven success.

"It shifts away from the state’s best recycling program, the Bottle Deposit Law. That 40-year-old law has led to huge reductions in litter and does a far superior job at making ‘producers, not taxpayers’ pick up the costs of beverage container wastes."

A current proposal would expand the deposit to 10 cents on most bottles, cans and some jars while including far more types of containers for recycling, including liquor, wine and tea bottles, energy and sports drinks, milk containers and juice boxes.

Few details are available on Hochul’s proposal. Hochul’s budget stated that producers would be prohibited from selling products in the state unless they implemented their own program approved by the state or joined another. Producers also would have to consult with an advisory committee to set "enforcement provisions."

The program would be funded by revenues collected from producers, which should reduce costs to local governments and their taxpayers.

"Producers have little incentive to reduce packaging waste, make packaging easier to recycle, or boost market demand by using more recycled content," according to the New York State Association of Counties. "This would create a financial incentive to generate less packaging and use packaging that is nontoxic, reusable, and easier to recycle."

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