Plastic bottes and materials at the Town of Brookhaven recycling...

Plastic bottes and materials at the Town of Brookhaven recycling facility in Yaphank. Credit: NEWSDAY/Photo by Joel Cairo

The clearest, least confusing part of recycling programs on Long Island and across New York might be that they aren’t working.

The amount of our garbage that’s recycled here is breathtakingly minimal. By one estimate, some 860,000 tons of recyclable material gets trashed in the state every year, which amounts to a small percent of people actually recycling.

New York’s municipalities pay tens of millions of dollars annually for recycling programs, and those programs can be a bust. In recent years, with China being pickier in what recyclables it will take, the market for them has dropped, making municipalities pay more — rather than get paid — to deal with the recycling you put on your curb, some of which ends up trashed anyway.

There’s a better way: what’s known as “extended producer responsibility” programs that put the onus on the companies that produce packaging and paper to take responsibility for the product through its life cycle.

This is not a new concept — it’s well established in places like Europe and Canada and has been approved in Maine and Oregon — but New York’s huge market provides a chance to lead, nudging companies to be better about their delivery mechanisms that turn quickly into junk. But how do you design the best EPR program for NY?

There are a few evolving proposals circling Albany. The overall goals include giving producers incentive to make less packaging and having producers pay for expensive recycling processes. The original proposals get there in different ways. Broadly, ones from Gov. Kathy Hochul and State Sen. Todd Kaminsky use “producer responsibility organizations” to fund recycling, maintain recycling standards, and cover recycling costs. A version that Assemb. Steve Englebright has worked on would rely more on setting percentages of packaging that needs to be recycled and also would require a certain amount of recycled content in a product, like a box.

The three bodies of government seem close enough to compromise on a program whose requirements are strict but achievable. The amount of recycling should be high, and there should be real guardrails to make sure the “recycling” methods we get are not egregiously deleterious to the environment in other ways, like incinerating plastic.

Advocates say that, historically, EPR programs wouldn’t hurt consumers. As taxpayers, we pay for our trash disposal one way or another. If Amazon thinks twice about smothering your next order in packaging, wouldn’t that be an improvement? On Long Island, we are running out of space for our trash, with landfills in Brookhaven and Babylon slated for closure.

It’s a complex issue but one that has been discussed for years. It would be best if lawmakers could resolve this and place EPR in the budget, when other priorities create leverage. It’s long past time to start tackling our trash problem.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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