New York became a national leader on climate change when it set ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets in 2019. Now, environmental advocates want the state to lead again in a related avenue by approving legislation to reduce single-use plastics.
Over 200 organizations have signed a letter in support of the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act. Additional support includes members of the New York City Council, Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, as well as a majority of the state Senate and nearly half of the Assembly. Supporters will hold a virtual rally on Thursday.
The legislation, first introduced last year, seeks to reduce the use of plastic packaging by 50% over the next 12 years. It sets intermediary benchmarks every few years to ensure compliance, and would apply to businesses with net incomes above $1 million a year. “It essentially creates environmental standards for packaging, like we have fuel efficiency standards for cars now,” said Judith Enck, president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastic and a former EPA regional administrator. She said that companies don’t need a “space-age breakthrough” to begin replacing plastics with more recyclable materials like glass, metal or cardboard.
In addition to seeking to reduce plastic packaging, which is difficult to recycle, the legislation would also prohibit certain toxic chemicals like PFAS, mercury and formaldehyde from packaging, and ban so-called “chemical recycling,” a process to convert plastics in fuel and raw material for new plastic that environmental advocates say actually creates more pollution. It would also impose a fee on companies that use plastic packages, with money going toward recycling programs and local infrastructure.
Enck said that other countries have passed similar laws, but New York would lead the United States on the issue if lawmakers approve the bill. She said that California passed a much weaker version of the law with no real teeth, and ensuring that New York’s bill doesn’t include loopholes to gut it will be key. “This is transformational,” Enck said. “I think it would compel other states to act, especially because we’re New York. This is not Rhode Island – no offense to Rhode Island.”
At a legislative hearing in October, an Adams administration official testified in favor of the amended legislation. Ryan Merola, deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation, said that the city “emphatically supports this legislation and believes it will… contribute to New York state’s legacy as a leader in sustainability.” In his executive budget address, Adams said the city spends $477 million a year to export garbage to landfills in other parts of the state and to a New Jersey incinerator. In his testimony last year, Merola emphasized the cost-saving benefits the bill would have on the city.
The New York City Council in 2022 passed a resolution calling on state legislators to create an Extended Producer Responsibility system, which is one aspect of the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act.
The state passed a plastic bag ban in 2019 with mixed success when it came to enforcement after a rocky rollout. Enforcement didn’t begin until October 2020 following an attempted lawsuit to block the law. In New York City, for example, New York Focus reported in 2022 that plastic bags were still a common sight. A report from The City late last year offered a similar assessment on the spotty enforcement and compliance with the law. Enck said that enforcement is “always a big concern,” but expressed confidence in the mechanisms included in the bill, including the creation of a new office recycling inspector general within the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The legislation faces strong opposition from the plastics, fossil fuel and chemical industries, and Enck said that they have already begun campaigning against the law. “The opposition is enormous – this is David versus Goliath on steroids,” she said.
Bill sponsors state Sen. Pete Harckham and Assembly Member Deborah Glick introduced an amended version of the legislation in June, but business leaders expressed staunch opposition to the measure at the time. In a memo, the Business Council of New York State said the amended version “disregards practical considerations and will adversely impact consumer choices and costs.” The memo suggested the council was more supportive of the original version of the legislation, which it said more closely mirrored laws in California, Colorado and Oregon. Other groups, including farmers, called on lawmakers and legislative leaders not to support the bill as well. Those same groups testified against the bill at the October hearing on it.