Almost any plastic on land has the potential to reach the oceans via rivers and streams. Every year, up to 15 million metric tons of plastic reaches our oceans. A 2020 study by Science Advances found that the United States generates more plastic waste than any other nation in the world, some 42 million metric tons each year—the equivalent of 287 pounds per person. Of that, less than 9 percent of discarded plastic is recycled, according to fairly recent statistics available from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Why is the amount of plastic proliferating? Since 1966, there has been a 20-fold increase in plastic production, and the rate of recycling has not kept up. Scientists predict that the amount dumped in our oceans will triple in 20 years. This is already a health and environmental crisis. Our landfills are filled to capacity, and when plastics are sent to incinerators and burned, they release dangerous chemicals and particulates that are known to cause respiratory ailments and cancer, and stress human immune systems.
One of the strategies to address this crisis is to hold manufacturers responsible for their plastic packaging, and to require them to find alternatives, such as redesigning packaging with less or no plastic, or packaging that can be refilled and reused.
In a well-intentioned effort to divert plastic material from landfills and raise recycling rates, Governor Kathy Hochul has included a provision in her executive budget calling for Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging (EPR). However, experts, including Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA Regional Director, say the EPR proposal doesn’t go far enough. It needs to be strengthened and expanded. For one thing, it should prohibit the incineration of plastic bottles and ban garbage burning. It should hold companies accountable, rather than giving them control of the program. A strong EPR law would eliminate toxics in packaging, and use the fees collected for taxpayer relief and investments in reuse and recycling infrastructure. And it would set strong packaging reductions, recycling rates, and recycled content standards.
Additionally, Governor Hochul didn’t mention expanding the 40-year-old “Bottle Bill” ($.05 deposit/$.05 redemption on bottles and aluminum cans) in her State of the State address last month, or include it in her executive budget proposal unveiled soon after. This bill has been a success—aluminum cans with a deposit on them have seen a 78 percent recycling rate versus a 36 percent recycling rate on non-deposit cans—a difference evident across the board. “It’s quite remarkable that a modest deposit makes such a difference,” Enck says.
We need to update and expand the current Bottle Bill. A coalition of more than 150 environmental, civic, and community groups, including bottle distributors and redemption centers, have called on Governor Hochul to include a “bigger, better bottle bill” in this year’s state budget to get this legislation included. Accomplishing that could mean increasing the deposit amount from a nickel to a dime for a greater incentive to recycle, and expanding the number of different containers covered by the bill to include containers that hold liquor and other beverages.
It is so hard to get these bills through the legislature, and a weak EPR bill does more damage because it slows the process of having an effective bill on the books. Legislative decisions will be made by April 1. Please take a few minutes out of your busy life to call your state Senate and Assembly representatives and tell them that we need an effective EPR bill and a bigger, better Bottle Bill as proposed by Assembly member Steve Englebright—not the one the Governor has proposed—to start to tackle this huge global crisis of plastic pollution affecting our planet, health, and livelihoods. Your voice matters.
The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.