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The Push to Control Plastic Waste in New York: What to Know

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In 2020, the plastic supermarket bag was banned in New York. It is a member of the single-use-plastic family — items that release greenhouse gases when manufactured and, once used, can take years to break down in landfills.

Many more single-use plastic products could go the way of the supermarket bag should state lawmakers approve the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act in early June.

Read on to find out more.

What are single-use plastics?

They are items like wrappers, packaging and food containers that are used once and then discarded. They are mostly made from fossil fuel–based chemicals.

Why not just recycle them?

Many single-use items — especially anything soft or bendable — are a challenge to recycle because of their chemical composition, among other reasons. Anything flimsy like a potato chip bag, a bread bag, a squeezable baby food pouch should go in the trash in New York City. And those plastic bags that some places like food delivery businesses are still allowed to use? They jam up the machines at recycling centers.

All hard, stiff plastics can be recycled in the city, said Joshua Goodman, a spokesman for the Department of Sanitation. Globally, most plastic products end up in landfills or are incinerated. Both processes produce microplastics that are nearly impossible to remove from the air, ground and water.

Many environmental experts question whether it’s worth it to recycle any plastics, since the process is time-consuming, expensive and can leach toxins. Still, New Yorkers should continue recycling rigid plastic products so they don’t end up in landfills, Mr. Goodman said.

Why is recycling plastic so difficult?

Some 16,000 chemicals can be used in plastic production.

“The amount of plastics that are recycled is very low because there are so many different types of plastics, different colors and thousands of chemicals used to make them,” said Judith Enck, a former official for the Environmental Protection Agency and the president of Beyond Plastics, an advocacy group that is actively supporting the bill. “They all need to be sorted and cannot be recycled together.”

How would this bill limit the production of plastics?

The packaging reduction bill aims to reduce the use of plastic packaging by 50 percent over 12 years by requiring the companies that produce it to either find more sustainable options or pay a fee, which would go to municipalities across the state. The fee hasn’t been determined yet.

“The disposal of plastic packaging is costing municipalities and therefore taxpayers a great deal of money unnecessarily and that should be shared by producers, which is the incentive for them to not have unnecessary packaging,” said Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, a Manhattan Democrat and a sponsor of the bill.

How would the money raised by the fees be used?

The collected fees would be earmarked for municipalities’ recycling and waste disposal costs as well as infrastructure that cuts down on waste, such as public water fountains that can refill water bottles. Officials estimated that New York City could see as much as $150 million.

Would this law do anything else?

Out of the thousands of chemicals used in plastic production, 19 deemed among the most toxic would be prohibited from use in packaging, including formaldehyde and heavy metals.

Have other states done something similar?

So far, California, Oregon, Maine and Colorado have passed similar legislation on packaging but have yet to put the resulting laws into practice. Earlier this month, the Minnesota legislature approved a bill, and it awaits the governor’s signature.

Are there any exemptions for certain products or small businesses?

Anything covered by the Food and Drug Administration is exempt. That includes medical equipment and packaging and prescription drug containers. Infant formula and medical foods are exempt. Also, any company that has an annual revenue of $5 million or less would be exempt. Manufacturers that generate large amounts of packaging are the focus of the bill, its supporters say.

Who supports it?

There is widespread support for the bill. Backers include the New York City mayor, Eric Adams.

The legislation could reduce landfill waste by six million pounds a day and would also save taxpayers money, a spokeswoman for City Hall said.

“We must go after the producers who contribute to the plastics crisis and not place the burden on individuals,” said Elijah Hutchinson, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice.

The bill is also backed by Brad Lander, the New York City comptroller; Jessica Tisch, the sanitation commissioner; Jumaane Williams, the public advocate; and the City Council.

“The bill just makes sense,” said Sean Abreu, a council member who introduced and passed legislation allowing sports fans to bring refillable beverage containers into stadiums. “It will generate revenue for our city and will bring real benefits.”

More than 285 businesses and nonprofits, including the New York Public Interest Research Group, the League of Women Voters and the N.A.A.C.P., also support the bill.

Who is opposed to it?

Certain fossil fuel companies, chemical producers and business interests, especially large manufacturers of food and drink packaging, are opposed to the current version of the bill, with many arguing that prices could increase for packaged food and other items.

“We think it’s going way too far and will be very disruptive and expensive, and we don’t believe it’s achievable,” said Ken Pokalsky, a vice president at the New York Business Council, an association of statewide employers with 3,200 members.

He said his organization prefers the bill awaiting final approval in Minnesota, which does not specify targets for the reduced use of plastics.

Owen Caine, the vice president of government affairs at the Toy Association, a nationwide industry group, said that plastic protects toys from damage in transit. Making companies come up with alternative packaging would increase costs for consumers, he said.

The American Chemistry Council, a trade organization, would like to see “advanced” recycling, a new, somewhat untested strategy, included in the bill.

What’s next?

Final negotiations are underway. Amendments are being discussed on all sides, including comments from some State Senate members who want to lower the 50 percent reduction goal, Ms. Glick said.

This is the second go-round for the bill, which failed to pass last year. Industry opposition remains strong, but both houses’ environmental conservation committees passed the measure in February.

Leaders of the Assembly and Senate in Albany must bring the bill to a vote before the legislative session ends on June 6. Should that happen successfully, it would be up to the governor, who would need to sign it into law by year’s end.