Energy & Environment

New York’s war on plastic

Democratic lawmakers are pushing a wave of bills next session as the climate crisis worsens.

New York state lawmakers are ringing in the new year with at least one clear resolution: Cut down on single-use plastics.

New York state lawmakers are ringing in the new year with at least one clear resolution: Cut down on single-use plastics. Emilija Miljkovic/Shuttertock

New York state lawmakers are ringing in the new year with at least one clear resolution: Cut down on single-use plastics.

Ahead of the upcoming legislative session, Democratic legislators in both chambers have introduced more than a half-dozen bills to limit the availability of single-use plastics – from ambitious bans of plastic cutlery to narrow restrictions on shampoo bottles in hotels.

These initiatives come on the heels of new laws passed last year to ban plastic bags in stores, slated to go into effect in March.

Less than 10% of U.S. plastic waste is recycled, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. The vast majority ends up in landfills or, until recently, was sent to China. The Chinese government halted imports of all but the highest-quality plastics last year, and just 56% of U.S. plastics is being accepted by places like Vietnam and Malaysia, where it’s as likely to end up in makeshift dumps as it is to be melted down for reuse. More than 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, adding to an estimated 150 million metric tons already circulating, according to the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy. In a March report, the World Wildlife Fund projected that the total amount of plastic in the ocean will double by 2030.

Now, as lawmakers in California and other progressive states scramble to stem the flow of plastic waste, New York legislators are hoping momentum from the plastic bag ban and successful local bans on Styrofoam in New York City, Suffolk County and Troy will propel a new suite of bills to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk in 2020.

It won’t be an easy fight. It took years for the plastic bag bill to make it over the legislative hump. The plastics industry is powerful and its advocates already point to 1,500 jobs at risk at three upstate factories that produce polystyrene, the plastic referred to colloquially as Styrofoam. Cuomo, too, is no guaranteed supporter, having carved out sizable loopholes in the plastic bag ban he pushed through in the budget last year, allowing restaurants and delis to continue serving food to go in plastic. Cuomo also had previously crushed New York City’s attempt to enact its own plastic bag fee.

Yet at a moment when the national debate over the climate crisis is opening the door to environmental policies that would have been considered radical just a few years ago, the fight over plastic – a nonrenewable fossil fuel product – is reaching “a tipping point,” said Debby Lee Cohen, an anti-plastics activist in Manhattan who co-founded the nonprofitCafeteria Culture. “We’re not going to get there just by encouraging people to change their behavior,” she said. “We see now that incentivization through laws and regulations make the huge difference.”

Now is the time, state Sen. Kevin Parker said in an interview, to “go big or go home.” The Brooklyn Democrat introduced what may be the most ambitious proposal this session: the New York Plastic Free Act, which would prohibit the sale of single-use plastic products, including bags, bottles, food packaging, cups, stirrers and cutlery. The ban, he said, would spur new markets for compostable alternatives made from bamboo or other materials, and encourage restaurants to provide reusable metal utensils and straws.

It may not pass this session, a reality Parker understands. The average piece of legislation takes three years to pass in New York, he said, so he introduced a second bill to enact the bans at state agencies, in the hope it would whet the political palate for his statewide proposal. “I’m looking for a home run,” he said. “But I’ll take a double and triple to get there.”

More limited bills, such as state Sen. Todd Kaminsky’s proposed ban on plastic shampoo bottles in hotels, may be more likely to pass. Kaminsky’s bill already has support from the hospitality industry, five co-sponsors and a companion bill in the Assembly, introduced by Assemblyman Steve Engelbright. “In New York City alone, over 20 million single-use hotel vials are used every year,” Kaminsky, a Long Island Democrat, told City & State. The bill does not bar hotels from offering nonplastic small bottle alternatives.

Other bills aim to impose 5-cent fees on paper bags, encouraging New Yorkers to carry reusable bags, and add liquor and noncarbonated drinks like Gatorade and Snapple to the list of beverage containers covered by the “Bottle Bill,” first passed in 1982. Another would require restaurants to provide plastic straws only upon request. Two bills from Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy would require restaurants to allow diners to take out drinks or leftovers in Tupperware-like containers from home, and mandate that all single-use plastic containers be made from 75% recycled materials.

It’s unclear whether all the bills will be voted on, especially since some conflict or overlap. For example, Parker’s bill would render Fahy’s moot. Asked which bills would take priority, Mike Murphy, a spokesman for state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said, “We will discuss these bills as a conference.” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to questions sent by email.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office declined to comment on the record about whether Cuomo would back any of the bills. The state Department of Environmental Conservation said in an emailed statement it “continues to lead the nation in responding to changes in global recycling markets and is committed to supporting and improving recycling of plastics and other materials across the state.”

The American Chemistry Council, the plastic industry’s top lobbying group, said it was still reviewing the legislation in New York. But Margaret Gorman, the trade association’s Albany-based regional senior director, said, “Generally, we believe simply banning plastics will not alleviate the problem.”

“We, as an industry, are willing to work with elected officials in finding solutions that will work,” Gorman said. “We want to be a solution provider.”

There are other efforts outside the Legislature, both from local governments and activists seeking to pressure government entities. On Dec. 2, more than two dozen environmental groups signed a letter to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey urging the agency to stop selling single-use plastic water bottles and build more water fountains in its airports, train stations and bus stations, following a similar ban in San Francisco International Airport this summer.

Locally, New York City outlawed Styrofoam containers at the start of this year and it began issuing fines to eateries in July. Suffolk County slapped a 5-cent fee on plastic bags in 2017, and it caused plastic bag usage in 2018 to decrease by 1.1 billion bags. Last year, the Long Island county banned Styrofoam and plastic straws. This summer, Nassau County’s Republican-controlled legislature banned Styrofoam takeout containers too. In September, Troy, a post-industrial city on the Hudson River just north of Albany, passed a bill banning Styrofoam and mandating plastic straws only upon request. That, Kaminsky said, was a sign the issue was no longer ideological, but rather is “seeping down to the level of regular people wanting to take action.”

“These are not places with overwhelmingly Manhattan City Council types,” he said. “These are suburban moderate areas.”

But that may speak to the fact that “the state of New York is way behind the curve on this issue,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator during the Obama administration.

“People don’t think about it this way, but New York is a coastal state; the majority of New Yorkers live on Long Island or New York City or in Western New York along the Great Lakes,” said Enck, who now runs the nonprofit Beyond Plastics out of Bennington College in Vermont. “Yet New York is pitifully behind California.”

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