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Trash talk

Americans generate a lot of trash. According to the EPA, in 2018 the United States produced nearly 300 million tons of waste. Unfortunately, most of that waste ends up in the nation’s landfills.

Americans recycled or composted 93 million tons for a nationwide recycling rate of only 32%. And the U.S. ranks quite low when compared to the rest of the world in recycling percentage. Of the major countries that track recycling data, the United States is ranked number 25 out of 32.

When it comes to generating trash, the holidays are the worst: Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans add up to 43% extra waste to that total, or an additional 29 pounds per week, nearly doubling the typical weekly total.

The move to a greater reliance on home deliveries – particularly during the pandemic – hasn’t improved the situation at all.

Here in New York, we generate a lot of trash too. Over 4.5 pounds per person per day. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, New Yorkers get rid of their trash by dumping it in approximately 30 landfills, which accept approximately 6 million tons per year of solid waste; sending 2.5 million tons to be burned at garbage incinerators; and ship another 6 million tons to locations outside of the state.

The state does a better job than most when it comes to recycling, ranking tenth in a recent survey. (Although the state’s recycling rate has been decreasing since 2012.) But doing better than most in a nation that does poorly means there is a lot of room to improve.

While the trash picture is lousy, it is getting worse. One of the major destinations for the nation’s plastic trash had been China. That all changed in 2018, when China put an end to importing the world's waste. The policy, called National Sword, has created a serious trash problem in America.

Now the question is: Where is the nation’s trash going to go?

In her State of the State address this year, Governor Hochul advanced a plan. She called for the establishment of an “Extender Producer Responsibility program” (EPR), which she said would require “producers, not taxpayers, to cover the cost of recycling.” The governor looked at the waste issue through the prism of climate change and pointed out that the waste industry accounts for about 12% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

EPR is the environmental principle that focuses on the entire lifecycle of impacts resulting from a product – including its packaging. EPR makes the producer of a product responsible for the waste generated from the extraction of raw materials to the production and distribution of the product, to when the product is discarded.

Governor Hochul did advance an EPR plan, but it went nowhere in the Legislature since it relied too heavily on industry to self-regulate.

The governor also ignored New York’s best EPR program – its Bottle Deposit Law. That 40-year-old law requires consumers of certain beverage containers (by and large carbonated beverages and drinking water) to pay a nickel deposit. When the consumer returns the empty container to the retailer, the consumer redeems their nickel deposit. It’s worked well over the decades with about two-thirds of covered containers being redeemed – a far better performance than the state’s anemic recycling rate.

The nation’s – and the state’s – solid waste problem, however, isn’t going anywhere. Dumping the waste in landfills threatens drinking water supplies and fouls the land; burning the trash increases air pollution, creates toxic ash and contributes to global warming; sending it somewhere else doesn’t work anymore – who wants it?

Instead, New York and the nation should look toward developing a “circular economy.” A circular economy is based on three principles: (1) Eliminate waste and pollution; (2) Circulate products and materials (at their highest value) through reuse and recycling; and (3) Regenerate nature, which is the product of the first two principles. A key component to any EPR program is a firm statutory goal, such as reducing packaging waste by 50% over a decade.

When it comes to developing a system in which “producers, not taxpayers” are on the hook for the costs of dealing with packaging waste, New York lawmakers should build upon an existing successful program – its Bottle Deposit law – by expanding it to include all alcohol and non-carbonated beverage containers. And they should establish a strong EPR program to further reduce non-beverage container packaging wastes. The mounting solid waste crisis is not going away, and lawmakers must quickly move to address it when they return to Albany in January. Smart solid waste policy will save money, improve the environment and advance its climate goals. There is no time to waste.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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