Reducing plastic pollution is too important to rush

We are at an impasse. The United States is the world’s largest producer of plastic. We are incredibly good at doing this; in 2018, our country produced 35.7 million tons of plastic, according to the American Chemistry Council. But we’re not very good at implementing ways to reduce, reuse or even eliminate them, and it accumulates. Only a small fraction is recyclable, and what doesn’t end up in landfills or incinerators blows all over our beaches, parks and waterways. Most of the estimated 9 million metric tons of plastic that enter the oceans each year are carried away by land-based waste.

There are many effective solutions to this, ranging from banning single-use plastic items and intentionally releasing balloons, to requiring packaging to be reduced or designed to be reused or refilled, to requiring that manufacturers and companies – not taxpayers – take financial responsibility for the avalanche of over-packaging they put on the market. All of these ideas fall under the rubric of “Extended Producer Responsibility” or EPR, a legislative solution that offers what is perhaps our best and most realistic hope of freeing ourselves from the mountain of plastic pollution.

But we have to get the details right, which is a dilemma because New York State is now at a crossroads. In her draft state budget, Governor Kathy Hochul included legislation containing EPR provisions, but the proposal includes serious issues such as placing the packaging industry itself in responsible for EPR with limited regulatory oversight. It’s like giving the cigarette industry the responsibility to reduce smoking.

An effective EPR program would set environmental standards for packaging. This would force companies to reduce what they make, and anything that can’t be reused or refilled would have to be made from recycled content, or at least be easy to recycle. The most toxic ingredients should be eliminated, the burning of plastic should be prohibited, and the program should be closely monitored.

Plus, it’s time to modernize the state’s Bottle Bill, which hasn’t been updated in 40 years. We have more drink types than before, and a nickel doesn’t go that far. Deposits should be increased to a penny and be required for liquor, wine and the range of soft drinks New Yorkers now enjoy.

Hochul’s EPR proposal excludes each of these important provisions. Assembl. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the House Environmental Conservation Committee, will soon introduce a strong EPR bill that will require packaging to be reduced. The rest should be recycled or made from recycled materials. This will save local taxpayers money. The less this is generated, the less local governments will have to collect and manage. This will greatly reduce toxic substances in packaging, thus protecting our health. And it will not allow the burning of plastic to be considered recycling.

New Yorkers will support effective solutions – once they become available. Given the shortcomings of Hochul’s bill and Englebright’s promise, let’s leave the ERP aside to work after the state budget is passed. After all, it’s not about government spending. At this point, Albany lawmakers can choose which path they will put us on. They can choose the path that leads to real reductions in plastic waste. Or they can take the path that leads to minor tweaks in a flawed system that buried us in the garbage in the first place.

This guest essay reflects the perspective of Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator.

Bryce K. Locke