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Sick of all the plastic in your life? A proposed New York bill would reduce it — and it has a shot

Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College and a former EPA regional administrator, gives a petition to an aide to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The petition asks the Legislature to approve a bill to reduce plastic packaging by 50% over the next 12 years.
Karen DeWitt
/
New York Public News Network file photo
Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College and a former EPA regional administrator, gives a petition to an aide to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The petition asks the Legislature to approve a bill to reduce plastic packaging by 50% over the next 12 years.

Advocates say polls show that the public is on their side. They delivered a petition including 13,000 e-signatures to the Assembly and Senate leadership offices. Lawmakers were off for the long holiday weekend before resuming session Tuesday for a two-week sprint to adjournment.

With just seven working days left of the official 2023 legislative session, advocates for a measure that would reduce plastic packaging by half say their bill is gaining momentum. They hope it could become law before lawmakers are set to adjourn for the summer on June 8.

Judith Enck is the former regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who is now head of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College. She said the chairs of the environmental committees in the Senate and Assembly are the bill’s prime sponsors, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have expressed interest in advancing the measure over the next two weeks.

“This is a moment for the New York State Legislature to provide vital leadership in the next two weeks. And two weeks at the end of the legislative session is really like two months,” Enck said. “They can get it done if it's a priority for the speaker and the majority leader.”

Enck said plastic pollution is so insidious that traces of plastics are found in drinking water and in the human body, including in some newborn babies.

Plus, she said, it’s annoying. Enck used as an example a package that her colleague received from Amazon. The wood-made alternative to a plastic highlighter pen that she ordered came wrapped in several packaging layers like a Russian nesting doll.

In all, she unwrapped two plastic envelopes, a glassine envelope and a paper one, and finally a clear plastic wrapper containing the pens.

“Why do we need this level of packaging for wooden highlighters?” Enck said. “Amazon would save money by just sending it perhaps in a little recyclable cardboard box. They're not going to change unless the law changes.”

The bill would gradually phase in the 50% packaging reduction requirement over a period of 12 years. It would also ban a practice sought by the industry — the burning of some plastic packaging items that are not able to reach overcapacity recycling markets. It would also ban toxins, including heavy metals and PFAS chemicals, in all packaging.

Four other states already have similar laws on the books, including California. Supporters believe that the combined market share of New York and California would likely result in companies reducing their packaging for other states and nations as well.

Opposition includes large companies, including Amazon, McDonald’s and Mars Candy Co., as well as the American Chemistry Council, a plastics manufacturing lobby group. Enck said they’ve been fighting the bill.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” she said.

American Chemistry Council spokesman Andrew Fasoli responded, saying that the current version of the bill is “counterproductive and would increase the use of materials which increase carbon emissions in critical applications."

In a statement, Fasoli said the “approach should be flatly rejected” and that it would not help improve the flawed plastics recycling system.

Fasoli said the group would instead back a bill that would help to finance recycling collection and technology, and ensure a consistent supply of plastic products to recycle.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.