Keiko Niccolini, of Hudson Valley Mothers Out Front and the...

Keiko Niccolini, of Hudson Valley Mothers Out Front and the Peekskill NAACP, talks about the importance of reducing plastic waste at a rally outside of the State Capitol in Albany on May 14. Credit: Newsday/Keshia Clukey

ALBANY — Everything from plastic-wrapped cheese slices to detergent bottles, and even potting soil bags, is being discussed in the State Legislature as lawmakers debate whether to make businesses responsible for recycling and reducing their packaging waste.

A bill known as the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act has gained steam over the past few weeks as environmental advocates and Democratic lawmakers push to get the measure passed before the legislative session ends in June.

The proposed legislation would improve recycling infrastructure, reduce toxins in packaging and shift the onus and cost of recycling from municipalities to manufacturers, saving taxpayers money.

Companies with a net income over $5 million or that sold or used more than 2 tons of packaging per year would be required to incrementally reduce certain non-reusable packaging by 50% over 12 years. And they’d be required to increase the recycling or reuse of plastic packaging material by 75% by 2050.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A bill known as the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act has gained steam over the past few weeks as environmental advocates and Democratic lawmakers push to get it passed before the legislative session ends in June.
  • The proposed legislation would improve recycling infrastructure, reduce toxins in packaging and shift the onus and cost of recycling from municipalities to manufacturers.
  • Businesses and trade associations are opposed, saying the bill is not realistic as currently drafted.

The bill takes aim at reducing the roughly 5 million tons of packaging waste produced in New York State annually, according to 2018 estimates from Beyond Plastics, a national project based at Bennington College in Vermont with a focus on reducing plastic pollution.

“The problem is big and the magnitude grows larger every day, and so we wanted to have a robust bill that would reduce packaging, invest in recycling, and take the onus off of municipalities,” State Senate Environmental Conservation Committee chairman Peter Harckham (D-South Salem) told Newsday.

Businesses and trade associations publicly have ramped up their lobbying efforts over the past two weeks, saying the bill is not realistic as drafted.

“It’s really like a multiple mandate boondoggle,” said Matt Cohen, president and CEO of the Long Island Association, which represents businesses. “The multiple mandates in this bill are not workable. Businesses will not be able to comply.”

Industry leaders further argue the bill will have unintended consequences and cost manufacturers billions of dollars — costs that they say would be shifted to consumers.

Unlike similar bills in states including Colorado, California, Maine and Oregon, New York’s bill is “too strict,” and “too expensive,” said Ross Eisenberg, president of America’s Plastic Makers, a division of the American Chemistry Council.

Harckham, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said he’s open to tweaking the bill, but environmental advocates argue it shouldn’t be “watered down.”

“We can’t keep letting taxpayers foot the bill for plastic pollution, especially with the negative climate and health impacts that come with it,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator, said in a statement.

Here’s what you need to know about the push to reduce packaging waste.

Revamped bill

Gov. Kathy Hochul and members of the State Legislature have proposed similar bills in recent years, but the measures failed to make it through the legislative process.

Last year, new sponsors revamped the bill, creating a more aggressive measure that includes gradual timelines and standards for packaging reduction, recycling and reuse.

The bill, co-sponsored by Assemb. Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), would apply to containers, protective packaging and products such as single-use cups and bags. Certain materials, including medical devices, would be excluded.

The state would create a packaging reduction organization to oversee the new program and develop and implement reduction and recycling plans.

Packaging waste currently is recycled or disposed through incineration or in landfills at a cost to taxpayers who either pay for local governments or private waste haulers or recyclers to take the material away.

The bill would shift the cost of waste management onto packaging producers by requiring them to pay a fee, which would then cover the cost of running the state program and reimburse local governments as well as private waste haulers. Companies not in compliance would face fines of up to $1,000 per day per violation, though they could seek a waiver in some instances.

The bill also would ban the use of packaging containing certain chemicals and materials, as well as PVC and polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam. Violators would face penalties of up to $10,000 per day.

Addressing 'wish-cycling'

People see the triangular recycling logo on plastic bottles and put them in the recycling bin not knowing that most of the time they can’t be recycled together because they have a different chemical makeup, Enck told Newsday. It’s called “wish-cycling,” she said.

The bill aims to address that, requiring businesses to use less packaging, to create infrastructure to collect and recycle products, and to increase the amount of recycled content in paper, glass and plastic products.

The measure also would decrease the amount of methane released by landfills and the amount of diesel fuel used by trucks to transport waste, Harckham said. “This is a way that we can meaningfully address climate change,” he said. The proposal aligns with the state’s climate goals, he said.

Business-lead change

Blueland, a New York City-based company that makes cleaning supplies and personal care products, already is focused on eliminating packaging by making tablets and powders. For example, the dish soap tablets, which come in compostable packages, when combined with water make a bottle's worth of soap.

It eliminates the need for a single-use bottle and uses less packaging to ship, which is lighter and less expensive, company co-founder and CEO Sarah Paiji Yoo told Newsday. The company is piloting a program with online retail giant Amazon, using its own recyclable packaging.

“As much as we believe it’s important to shift consumer behavior and preferences, we recognize it’s far more impactful for businesses and government to lead that change,” Paiji Yoo said. With New York being the fourth-most populous state, passing this bill will hopefully encourage other businesses to take action, she said.

Strong opposition

Business and trade groups opposing the measure include the apparel and cosmetics associations, restaurants, beverage companies, some trade unions, The Toy Association, bodega owners and the powerful plastics industry.

Among many issues they cite are the broad range of materials covered and the timeline, which they say is unrealistic.

Companies will have to look at not only what their products are packaged in, but what they’re shipped in, said Ken Pokalsky, vice president of the Business Council of New York State.

New York’s bill has a tighter timeline than the other states, he said.

The bill also doesn't give producers a seat at the table when it comes to the entity creating and overseeing the program, Pokalsky said. “They’re going to be paying for it. They'd like to have a major role in designing it and running it,” he said.

Additional challenges

Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, which makes consumer lawn and garden products and has a manufacturing facility in Yaphank, has been trying to reduce its packaging.

“We’re making progress, but the goals stated in the bill are just unachievable,” said Bryan Mahoney, the company’s director of research and development for global packaging.

The company spent more than $1.2 million over two years converting the rigid bottle packaging of one product into a recyclable, flexible film, and that’s just one of hundreds of product lines, he said.

The recycling technology is not yet available for some products, such as a replacement for the plastic bags containing dirt that need to be sturdy enough to withstand the outdoors, he said.

And there’s fierce competition for companies wanting to use recycled materials, known as post-consumer recycled content, which further drives up the cost, Mahoney said.

With “impossible” targets, Scotts Miracle-Gro is more likely to stop selling in New York than comply with the bill if it passes as is, said Rebecca Thomas, the company’s director of regulatory compliance. “If we can, we will, but if it becomes too much of a hassle, we have 49 other states that we can sell to.”

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