New York business groups and environmental advocates are pushing back on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to require businesses like Amazon.com Inc., 3M Co., and Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. to reduce and pay for the disposal of paper and packaging products.
Environmentalists say the plan doesn’t go far enough, and the complex issue should be handled outside of the state budget process. Meanwhile, state business leaders want a greater role to create a less burdensome program, and warn of increased costs associated with shifting municipal and private waste management onto producers.
Hochul (D) in her $227 billion budget proposal called for a “Waste Reduction and Infrastructure Act,” which would cover everything from plastic wrap to Post-it notes and require producers to recycle or dispose of what they produce.
The proposal aims to save local governments and ultimately taxpayer dollars, while pushing businesses to re-think the sustainability of their packaging materials as home delivery ramped up during the pandemic. Producers would be required to achieve a recovery rate of 35%, for example taking back their old boxes, and a recycling rate of 25% for all covered materials by 2029. They also would have to reduce packaging materials by 15% by 2034.
New York would follow California, Oregon, Maine, and Colorado, which have passed similar waste management laws for producers.
A coalition of up to 100 companies and business groups contend waste management and recycling services are a shared responsibility and called on Hochul and the legislature to create a program to provide infrastructure funding for the effort. The group includes the Business Council of New York State, 3M, the Plastics Industry Association, the New York State Brewers Association, the New York Farm Bureau, as well as various chambers of commerce, retail, and packaging associations. Hochul’s bill would use funds from producer registration fees and other revenues collected under the program, to create grants for planning and implementation.
“It’s really broad, so this would bring in tens of thousands of entities arguably that would have to somehow join together to create and fund the program that has a lot of mandates on it,” said Ken Pokalsky, vice president of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State. “I think it’s fair to say that they recognize that right or wrong, this is the direction that New York state wants to move, therefore it makes sense for us to try to develop a program that’s workable from our perspective that provides meaningful results.”
While environmentalists say producers should be responsible for more sustainable packaging and disposing of it, they have expressed concern about the cramped time to create the law before the April 1 budget deadline.
There’s little time to negotiate the issue, which should be debated in public, not behind closed doors, said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, a project at Bennington College in Vermont that focuses on reducing plastic pollution. “This is a complicated policy question.”
Recycling and waste disposal programs are run by local governments or private waste management companies in New York. There already are about nine different versions of producer mandates in the state, Pokalsky said, including requirements for paint disposal; the recycling of cell phones, electronic equipment, and carpeting; as well as a 5-cent fee on certain cans and bottles.
Companies operating in the other four states that have passed producer-responsibility laws also have to contend with those different regulations. “So far they’re all very different,” Pokalsky said.
National brands are preparing for these requirements, but compliance obligations and costs fall on every firm, Pokalsky said, adding that it’s a greater challenge for small businesses.
“Improving the recycling system is a shared responsibility and funds should primarily support infrastructure development and should only be used to return a material to a positive market value—not cover the entire recycling system as it exists today, including all collection costs,” the Business Council said in a Feb. 14 memo.
Hochul’s plan would apply to certain paper products and packaging, including packaging used in distribution to consumers or retailers. Newspapers, books, and products “unsanitary” after use would not be included.
The legislation also sets minimum post-consumer recycling requirements by 2029 for materials including glass, metal, plastics, cardboard, and paper products.
Businesses that generate less than $1 million in annual revenues, operate a single store, or sell under 1 ton of covered materials annually would be exempt from the law, as would government entities and charitable organizations.
Producers and groups that collect and recycle the packaging waste on behalf of companies, known as producer responsibility organizations, can request waivers, and rates can be adjusted by the state if determined not to be feasible—which Enck argues defeats the purpose of the bill. “The whole point of this is we’re going to drive change,” Enck said.
Hochul proposed a similar bill last year, but it failed to make it through the legislature after getting pushback from various interest groups, as well as some lawmakers who said the policy shouldn’t be included in the budget process. Bills proposed in the Senate and Assembly then failed to make it out of committee before the end of session.
Three other bills being considered by state lawmakers this year—S.1064 and S.4246/A.5322— also would shift waste and recycling management to the producers.
“The Hochul packaging reduction proposal is very weak, particularly when you compare it to the three bills that are seriously pending in the legislature,” said Enck, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2, which includes New York.
The competing bills would reduce more waste in a shorter time period, for example requiring a 50% reduction of packaging materials in 10 or 12 years, and provide more state oversight and accountability than Hochul’s plan, she said.
“The most important thing is to get waste reduction. That’s far more important than recycling, particularly for plastics,” Enck said, adding that it also means less waste for haulers and local governments to pick up. “If you’re a fiscal conservative you should love this bill because we want to cut packaging volume in half over the next decade and that will save tax dollars.”
The legislation also should reduce toxins in packaging, and prohibit “false recycling,” where, for example, plastic is turned into fuel, which can lead to toxic air pollution, she said.
Business groups argue for additional research into the current state of the recycling and waste markets, which should then be used to create mandates. “If you’re already presupposing all the solutions, what’s the point of a needs assessment,” Pokalsky said.
Producers would be responsible for paying for the waste management and recycling costs and reimburse municipalities and private haulers for the work they’re already doing—and none of the proposals address fair pricing for such requirements, he said.
The one-house budget proposals, which are expected to be released by the state Senate and Assembly next week, could offer up more details, Pokalsky said. The one-house proposals will shed light on what will be included in the state’s spending plan, and what’s left to hash out before the legislative session ends in June.
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