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Plastic waste is a business expense

Pile of plastic at the Brookhaven Recycling Facility

Pile of plastic at the Brookhaven Recycling Facility in Brookhaven on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. Credit: Morgan Campbell/Morgan Campbell

The fact that until recently the United States sold its plastic waste to China should have been the warning sign that our nation's approach to plastic waste was inadequate. The fact that plastic trash is now piling up in our landfills — never to degrade for many years — is the mounting crisis we ignore at our peril. It’s a path that’s neither practical nor sustainable.

Fortunately, states like New York are starting to act, in the form of an "extended producer responsibility" bill being considered by the State Legislature.

New York’s EPR legislation underscores the crux of the challenge: We don’t have the infrastructure or the means to address the growing heap of plastic waste in America. We need a state-by-state improvement of the recycling infrastructure. And the industries that produce products that end up in landfills should shoulder the cost to help fund and operate that infrastructure.

As CEO of one such company, I agree. We need a better and more sustainable way to address waste. Of the nearly 300 million tons of solid waste generated each year in America, less than a quarter is recycled.

If we are to solve this problem, an important part of the solution is greater regulation. Specifically, we need EPR regulation — where producers bear some responsibility for the cost and governance of the collection and recycling infrastructure — along with rules that encourage reduction, reuse, and recycling of materials. The proposed New York legislation helps do that.

But what’s critical, as EPRs are advanced across the country, is that responsibility does not shift solely to producers, a scheme some states have entertained. If improvements and scale are our goals, which they must be, the incremental funding needs to go into improving the collection and recycling infrastructure — not alternative solutions that simply trade out one payer for another and preserve the status quo. A system of shared responsibility that recognizes that we are all part of the challenge and solution is the most sustainable framework for progress.

Regulation alone won’t solve this problem. It will require significant innovation and technological advancements by producers to make products that are more easily recycled, include more recycled content, and are more reusable.

At the company I lead, we are already innovating in a number of ways to reduce waste — from increasing the use of recycled plastic in product packaging to encouraging the reuse of spray bottles by selling concentrate refills, which in turn uses 80% less plastic. We also have a goal to make 100% of the plastic packaging in products recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025. Any legislation that incentivizes these types of actions — as New York’s bill does — is a good thing.

Ultimately, solving the waste challenge will require building scale and technological improvements in recycling infrastructure over the long term to drive better economics. And it will take actions that encourage more sustainable behavior on the part of people. Businesses can innovate relentlessly, and build the best infrastructure, but ultimately what matters is the willingness of Americans to participate.

New York’s legislation provides a starting point on each of these fronts, beginning with more leadership, and ultimately funding, from industry.

New York has an opportunity to create a model for the nation in terms of how we manage plastic waste — a feasible and comprehensive model that will yield substantial change at a time when it has never been needed more.

This guest essay reflects the views of H. Fisk Johnson, chairman and chief executive of consumer goods company SC Johnson.

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