NY Spurns Recycling Fairy, and Instead Considers New Extended Producer Responsibility Requirements

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I’m getting sick and tired of seeing the latest recycling misdirection – as I know the plastics – industry sponsors this ’solution’ to the plastics crisis. Which dumps onto you and me responsibility to sort our plastics waste – and send it off to be ‘recycled’.

It seems, however, that NY – where I live -might be about to do the right thing about plastics waste management. And by that I mean not offload onto the recycling fairry a magical  solution to the plastics crisis, but to place responsibility for managing plastics waste on those who create the problem in the first instance.  According to NPR:

Now, the New York legislature is deliberating two extended producer responsibility bills as its session nears its June 2 close. Lobbying by business and environmental groups has been particularly intense around details such as what recycling goals must be met and who sets them. Industry and environmentalists alike believe that when a state as big as New York adopts a law, it creates a template or standard that other states might adopt too.

More details:

While each state’s legislation varies, the system generally works like this:

Beverage companies, shampoo-makers, food manufacturers and other producers will keep track of how much of each sort of packaging they use.

These producers will reimburse government recycling programs for handling the waste, either directly or through a consortium called a “producer responsibility organization.”
Fees will be lower for companies that use easily recyclable, compostable or even reusable packaging, a mechanism that supporters say will provide incentives to adopt more sustainable practices.

Recycling centers will use the money to cover their operating costs, expand outreach and education, and invest in new equipment.

“We think corporations will produce less virgin materials because they are charged by the amount they put out there, and certainly less eco-unfriendly materials,” said New York state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Island who sponsored one of the bills pending in Albany.

As regular NC readers are well aware, recycling claims are usually bogus. Very little of the waste sent for recycling actually gets recycled. The pandemic shut down many recycling programs. We separate our waste, thinking that we’re doing something about the plastics crisis. We’re not. Over to NPR:

Recycling rates in the U.S. have stagnated over the past decade at around 30% to 35% across all materials in the waste stream; the recycling rate of plastics — a growing form of packaging — is much lower. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2018 that only 8.5% of plastic refuse was recovered to produce new products. (Two environmental groups recently estimated the real recycling rate to be even lower, given that not all recovered plastics end up being recycled.)

The burden of recycling falls not just on consumers to sort their containers properly, but also on cities and counties, where officials once thought recycling could pay for itself. But that has not been the case, especially because of recent decisions by China and other Asian countries to refuse to accept plastic waste imports. In 2021, the WWF calculated that the management of plastic waste costs about $32 billion a year worldwide.

“Such radical change will be costly, will carry its own risks of unintended consequences, and simply is not necessary to improve the state’s recycling and waste reduction outcomes,” the business group said in an open letter.

But some national corporations and plastics manufacturers have been more supportive, to an extent.The Recycling Partnership, a group funded by corporations such as General Mills, Coca-Cola and Exxon Mobil (which, as an oil and gas company, provides the raw materials for plastics), has endorsed the idea, so long as producers maintain some control over the fees and targets in the new system. (Exxon Mobil is a financial sponsor of NPR.) “How could you possibly run a system of this scale and get companies ultimately to change their packaging design, possibly shift to using more sustainable materials — how could we possibly do that without their participation?” said Michael Washburn, a senior policy adviser at the organization.

The key insight, that might point us to a better waste management system:

“Packaging doesn’t have to be the way we know it,” Kaminsky said. “Why in a box of cereal is there packaging within other packaging? You know, you reach into the box, and there’s a sleeve containing Cheerios or something. But when you get potato chips, it’s just in the sleeve. There’s no box around it. Why is that?”

Indeed.  I’m constantly amazed to see the excess of packaging. When I shop myself, I can reject it. But, when I  order online- even from local sources, which I sometimes do – there’s always excess packinging. Unnecessary plastic bags, for instance. I never place items in plastic bags. But if one orders three bell peppers, the grocery store places them in a plastic bag before sending them to me. Why?

How can we say no to plastic?

Why is an additional plastic bag always the default option?

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  1. Carla

    Great post, Jerri-Lynn, but there’s a lot of repetition and then I think there may be quite a bit missing. Hope this can be rectified as I want to share it with a bunch of people.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I’ve cleaned the post up – apologies and I think I’ve now fixed the issues re repetition. Pls let me know if any issues remain. Thanks! Always happy to hear you are sharing my posts.

  2. timbers

    Recently my main grocery store Market Basket stopped having a Danish Blue cheese (Roquefort cheese) due to supply issues. This fermented cheese supposedly rich in K2 which has properties that cancels need for low cholesterol/stantin medicine which carries with it not good side affects. It was wrapped in light shrink wrap like plastic wrapped extremely minimal. So now I have to purchase exact same cheese at BJ’s which has elaborate very much larger hard plastic, and at higher price.

  3. John Zelnicker

    Grocery stores using plastic bags for items such as fruit and veggies for pickup or delivery, as well as in-store, need to be incentivized to go back to the traditional paper bag. This also applies to most other groceries.

    When I was a kid there weren’t any of those ubiquitous plastic bags and my mother did just fine with paper. Paper bags come in various sizes and the “full size” ones can hold more items than plastic bags with about the same weight capacity.

    For heavier items like cans and glass bottles, paper bags can easily be made with thicker Kraft paper. Even the cold food bags back then were made of paper, they just used several layers for insulation until the food could get to the refrigerator.

    One regional grocery with stores in Mobile gave shoppers a choice of plastic or paper until just a few years ago.

    I mostly use cotton canvas satchels, along with a couple of plastic ones that I received from organizations I donated to. (I wish they would use other things for gift incentives, but nevertheless.)

    Another idea just occurred to me. Soda companies, such as Coca-Cola, switched to plastic mainly because of the reduced weight for shipping. Perhaps a heavy tax on plastic bottles about equal to the savings in freight costs versus using glass would help.

    Several states still offer money for the return of glass bottles. Adopting this strategy throughout the US also might help.

    1. johnf

      Unfortunately, large, pressurized glass soda bottles have a distressing habit of occasionally exploding because of undetected damage (scratches and chips) from use and rebottling.

      1. IMOR

        So? The lids are screwed properly on every plastic bottle of soda, while none are overfilled? The occasional exploding bottle was considered a sigificant problem when all were glass? (Spoiler: It wasn’t.)

        1. johnf

          I know a fellow who did a good business litigating exploding bottle cases who would beg to differ.

          A rather sad case was a baby who got a shard in his stomach after tipping over a bottle that had been in a hot car. The pin that engaged the spline hole, to spin on a new label, chipped the glass next to the hole, the scratches from use and reuse weakened the surrounding glass, and the bottle exploded. Safety wise, 2L plastic soda bottles are a good thing.

    2. Anthony G Stegman

      Paper bags pose their own problems. Plastic vs paper? Say no to both. When I grocery shop at the checkout I ask that my groceries be returned to the cart which I then wheel to my vehicle and load the contents of the cart into the vehicle. I have been doing this since the start of the pandemic. For most grocery shoppers this approach can work.

  4. Carla

    It takes a constant conscious effort to minimize or reject plastic, and given the stresses of daily life, many of us find it hard to do it consistently. I do keep trying. At the grocery store, I bring my own reusable shopping bags and always tell the bagger: “No added plastic, please!” If I ordered groceries delivered, I guess I would try to do the same thing over the phone or online. Not easy, though.

    I’ve noticed that one of our beloved hometown independent restaurants for the last 50 years now packs almost all their food in recyclable/compostable cardboard containers (drinks being the exception), and always asks if you need utensils so that they’re not needlessly adding to the plastic waste stream. But here’s the rub: those cardboard containers are not recyclable ACCORDING TO KIMBLE, the company that has the contract to take our city’s recyclables. As a result, I compost those containers myself. But how many people in our community have their own compost bins? Very few.

    The above, of course, only highlights the importance of the “producer responsibility” legislation your post addresses, Jerri-Lynn. Thank you for this important coverage.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I occasionally treat myself and order pozole from a local restaurant: delicious! I always specify no utensils – but they send them just the same. This bothers me so much that it’s stopped me from placing further orders. I suppose I could call the restaurant and make it clear that I don’t want plastic utensils with my pozole.

    2. marieann

      I keep seeing stories about all the excess packaging at restaurants and take out places.Quit using this way to eat. Make food at home…it always tastes better and you control the packaging(to a certain extent)

  5. Janie

    The changes in the household waste stream since the mid forties, my earliest memories, are enormous. Clothes were handed down, used for cleaning rags, made into quilts or rag rugs. Furniture and appliances were built to last and were repairable. Purchases went into paper bags. Result: no weekly trash truck in my town of 10,000. Every house backed up to an alley and had a 55 gallon burn barrel for household waste, including cans and jars. Every so often, a man came with mule-drawn wagon and emptied it. If you were really good, maybe daddy would let you strike the match.

    1. BeliTsari

      Do I ever miss decent, affordable 2nd hand stores, yard sales & Food Co-ops (CURSE all those who enabled Whole Foods, etc). All the used containers were marked for weight. Bicycled or walked & our INSANE community gardens, CSA & buying clubs were how we survived Reagan’s Miracle & formed bonds with all kinds of folks from wildly disparate & interesting backgrounds?

    2. Clark

      @Janie 11:10 pm. Thank you for this. I was born in ’58, which makes me just old enough to remember milk in glass jugs. I don’t recall what the containers my mom brought home groceries in were like. I do know that there were no plastic bags until c. 1980, IIRC; I asked her about this once. … But appliances that lasted forever — like the old Kenmore line from Sears — are long gone. … Up until I was around ten years old, we lived in a town of around 25,000; almost city-sized, but you could still burn waste in your backyard.

    3. Synoia

      Similar to my youth. We shopped with a wicker shopping basket.

      No plastic, and the rubbish (garbage) was minimal.

  6. jackiebass63

    The consumer will pick up the tab when companies are charged. Where I live in NYS I remember when recycling started. We had to separate different typer of material into separate containers. About two years ago this changed. Now everything goes into the same bin. I suspect it is no longer recycled but buried in a land fill. Recycling sounds good but it has become a big scam to make people believe they are doing something good.

    1. Susan

      Can anyone out there at “Naked Capitalism“ knowledgeable in the recycling industry give us the true figures now of recycling materials versus buried or burned materials?

      I believe we can’t make good future plans without knowing these facts.

      PS – I’m homeless after today, but still think and worry about others.


    2. marieann

      I have no problem with the consumer picking up the tab, it will encourage people to find other ways to buy food that doesn’t include the garbage

  7. Rob Urie

    The first German Packaging Order from about 1986 put the full onus of recovering commercial packaging onto producers. While the Order has been serially updated, its basic premise hasn’t been abandoned.

    As this article suggests, the American approach has been to use of the ‘consumer choice’ model to place the onus for excess packaging on consumers when there are few or no low packaging alternatives.

    The point: a template for the U.S. has existed about four decades already. Pricing schemes for packaging like NY is proposing are easily gamed.

    As with health care, why not look at approaches that work rather than pretending they don’t exist?

  8. Anthony G Stegman

    Trash hauling and water utilities share a similar revenue model. Try as we might to conserve water our water bills increase the less water we use. The trash haulers make their money by hauling and processing trash. The greater the trash the greater the revenue stream. In capitalist economies reducing and reusing is simply untenable as growth is required in order to sustain the business models. The only answer is to move away from capitalism as quickly as possible. This is a fundamental truth. Failure to do so will have catastrophic consequences for all of us.

  9. Hayek's Heelbiter

    My fingers are probably getting arthritic from typing this so often but:
    waste plastic + paper + wood waste + lawn clippings + anything with a carbon-hydrogen or carbon-carbon bond => hydrogen, methane, ethylene and other hydrocarbons
    @ temperatures of 500 – 600 degrees C
    via cold plasma pyrolysis.
    But as long as Big OIl pulls the strings from national government down to local councils, the chance of the circular economy being implemented by this actually not-so-revolutionary technology rank slightly below the chances of Hell turning cryogenic.

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