The legislature is working on overhauling the state’s outdated recycling...

The legislature is working on overhauling the state’s outdated recycling laws. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Lots of flotsam and jetsam is floating through Albany during the final days of the legislative session but it is finally time to deal with an actual trash problem: New York’s outdated and unworkable recycling laws.

An overhaul is needed. The good news is that after much delay, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the environmental chairs of both chambers are negotiating, but there seems to be a troubling lack of urgency in the Assembly to finalize a deal. The process was much delayed until Assemb. Steven Englebright, chair of the environmental conservation committee, revealed his proposal. There is much to like in his wide-ranging approach but the focus should be on what is achievable.

The most pressing need is to shift to producers the responsibility for their plastics of which almost 90% winds up in landfills. General goals include eliminating toxins from plastics, reducing the amount of materials used, and improving the recycling prospects of what remains.

The lawmakers also should focus on increasing recycling by residents, and on industry requirements such as recycling rates and waste reduction. The best formulas will compensate local municipalities for recycling costs and give them enough funding to update their machinery and practices. It can cost up to an estimated $180 million to run these new programs.

Due to a lack of specific scientific data, some of the sticking points — such as precise definitions of advanced chemical recycling — may not be resolvable before the session's end. Some advocates want to include specific regulations on new practices that would reduce the amount of plastic in landfills because this type of recycling would have as a byproduct higher-quality raw materials that could be used again. It's a good idea to implement the latest technological advances to deal with our enormous waste problem. But if it's unclear now how to best define these advanced practices, time can help.

Any major update of recycling regulations could take up to four years to implement and the best standards could change considerably by then. For now, the most practical course is to require the state Department of Environmental Conservation to study the ways advanced chemical recycling would be feasible. Such a compromise could clear a path toward a recycling package.

Another puzzlement is why two bills involving ground water contamination are stuck. One would prevent polluters from paying partial amounts of damages for cleanup. Corporations should not be able to offset their costs with grants given by the state to local water authorities. The bill would require polluters to pay their full share, with the grant money getting refunded to public coffers. The other bill would fix a drafting error in an earlier law to make it clear that the three-year window to hold polluters responsible can be applied from the date the contaminants were discovered.

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.