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Albany looks to tackle the state’s solid waste crisis

New York State – like the rest of the nation – is grappling with a growing solid waste crisis. Americans have never really tackled the incredible amount of trash that the nation generates. And until China reversed its decades-old policy of taking our trash, we got away with it. 

China enacted its “National Sword” policy in 2018. That policy banned the import of most plastics, electronic waste and other materials headed for that nation’s recycling programs. China had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past quarter century. The rationale for ending the program was simply that industrialized China was tired of being the world’s garbage dump. 

Without an adequate American national policy, it’s been left up to the states to handle the problem. In 1988, New York’s Solid Waste Management Act established the preferred hierarchy of solid waste management. In short, the hierarchy stated that first, reduce the amount of solid waste generated. Second, reuse material for the purpose for which it was originally intended or recycle the material that cannot be reused. Third, recover, in an environmentally acceptable manner, energy from solid waste that cannot be economically reused or recycled. Fourth, dispose of solid waste that is not being reused or recycled, or from which energy is not being recovered, by land burial or other methods approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). 

Despite that policy, little has been done to curtail the amount of waste generated, recycle it, or make manufacturers responsible for the end life of their products. New York State has on its books a coherent approach. This week, the Legislature scheduled hearings to examine how it handles packaging – both those of beverage containers and other types of packaging that too often ends up in garbage dumps. 

One exception to the state’s anemic track record on reduction of, or recycling of, wastes has been its Bottle Deposit Law. That’s the law that requires a nickel deposit on certain carbonated beverages and bottled water. When you return the container, you get your nickel back. That program is a good example of a “circular economy” – one in which the manufacturer of a package becomes responsible for its disposal. 

The Bottle Deposit Law has been the most successful litter reduction and recycling program in New York history. The DEC describes it as a “tremendous success.” When the law kicked in 40 years ago in 1983, carbonated beverage containers were found everywhere; now the overwhelming majority of such containers are redeemed under the program. But many beverages – most notably non-carbonated sports drinks – didn’t exist four decades ago and are not covered by the law today. And the nickel deposit was put in place 40 years ago – that 1983 nickel when adjusted for inflation is worth 15 cents today. 

In addition, the program itself is due for a good review, like any 40-year-old program should be. Good for the Legislature in holding that first hearing. The second hearing examines so-called “extended producer responsibility” legislation, a concept which essentially covers non-beverage container packaging. 

As we all know, packaging generates a lot of waste. Just look in your home trash bin. Not only does it cause a solid waste problem, but it contributes to the climate crisis as well. 

Solid waste accounts for 12% of statewide greenhouse gas emissions, most of which comes from landfills. Landfills emit methane, a greenhouse gas on steroids. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming. Methane levels in the atmosphere have doubled over the last 200 years as a result of industrialization. Reducing this pollutant rapidly would have a tremendous and immediate impact on mitigating the worst effects of climate change. 

The state’s climate plan, which offers a roadmap on how New York can meet its climate goals, recommended that “To reduce emissions to achieve the required 2030 GHG emission reductions, significant increased diversion [of solid wastes] from landfills as well as emissions monitoring and leak reduction will be needed. A circular economy approach to materials management is understood and employed.” 

The plan calls for the enactment of legislation to curb the generation of waste by reducing and recycling the waste generated by New Yorkers. Specifically, the plan calls for expanding the state’s bottle deposit law to include additional beverage containers. 

That call has broad-based public support. In a recent poll, 71 percent of New Yorkers support expanding the state’s bottle deposit program to include all types of beverage containers, with just 23 percent opposed. 

Expanding the Bottle Bill would be a major financial benefit both for New York’s municipalities and the state as a whole. According to one estimate, expanding the law would save New York municipalities at least $70.9 million dollars annually through waste diversion and add as much as $200 million to the state’s coffers. Not only would municipalities and the state save financially, but diversion on this scale would save an estimated 332,000 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of removing 32,000 cars every year. 

Expanding and modernizing the Bottle Deposit Law is a win, win, win. It helps with the climate crisis, helps with the solid waste crisis, and generates money for the state and local governments. That’s an important message for lawmakers to hear. It’s a message for Governor Hochul as well, as she is now putting together her budget plan for next year: expand the Bottle Deposit Law in 2024.

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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