NY Bill Would Shift Recycling Burden to Packaging Producers

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

The plastic industry has spent years telling consumers that the problem with disposable water bottles, takeout containers, and yogurt cups is at the end of its life cycle: that we just all need to individually recycle better. However, the flood of plastic could be dealt with at the beginning instead of trying to manage the end of its lifecycle, A new bill introduced in New York’s state legislature would make manufacturers responsible for the entire life of their product. They would be required to pick up the tab for recycling costs, which in turn would incentivize more reusable packaging in order to keep costs down. This concept, called extended producer responsibility, has been introduced in other U.S. state legislatures and is already being applied in parts of Europe and Canada.

Why this Matters: If corporations were taking responsibility for their pollution that would be a big deal. Plastic is made by oil and gas companies, and they’ve spent millions since the ‘70s telling Americans that it’s recyclable when they knew all along it’s not. Reframing packaging — which in New York is about half the city’s waste — at the systems level instead of the personal responsibility level would be transformative. It would also be a financial boon for local governments. New York City’s recycling cost is around $150 million a year, and extended producer responsibility would cover most of that cost, freeing up dollars for other city programs. 

Why isn’t plastic recyclable?

First things first: the little number surrounded a little triangle of arrows doesn’t mean the item can be recycled. It simply indicates the molecular structure of the plastic, which is used to determine what can and can’t be recycled. Each city and town decides which numbers they’ll collect, sort, and process. But even plastics that do go through the work of being recycled can really only be melted down and reused once or twice. (Glass, for reference, can be recycled nearly indefinitely.) Making new plastic is cheaper and easier, and right now, there’s no incentive for companies to do otherwise. 

Recycling plastic has only become harder in the US since China stopped accepting American recycling in 2018. Across the country, cities and towns are now paying for collection and processing. For some, that cost is too high: many have cancelled their recycling programs altogether because it’s not financially sustainable, sending everything to the landfill instead. The US produces more trash than any other country, and those numbers have only gone up with the proliferation of (not always necessary) single-use items during the pandemic. 

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