In 2017, recycling markets in China and elsewhere began closing their doors to the U.S. Not only did this force us to deal with our own recyclable materials, but it also exposed fundamental flaws in how we manage solid waste. As a result, the U.S. is suffering from an ongoing recycling crisis, causing local governments, taxpayers and our environment to pay a heavy toll.
Municipal recycling programs have seen costs skyrocket and are struggling to survive. Communities that were selling recyclable materials at a profit are now paying hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars annually to process these materials. In 2021, the cost to New York’s municipalities is expected to reach $80 million, and $5.7 million in Erie County alone. This financial burden ultimately falls on taxpayers.
High recycling costs result in fewer materials recycled. Consequently, recyclables end up in landfills, incinerators and as litter in our communities. In Erie County, it is estimated that 40,000 tons of recyclable materials are trashed annually. Plastic litter continues to plague our local waterways – research indicates Lake Erie contains 381 metric tons of plastic.
Such a high price tag to our local governments, taxpayers and environment makes us wonder what responsibility falls on those that are creating this mess? The answer is that manufacturers bear no financial responsibility. This must change.
Fortunately, legislation being proposed would go a long way toward providing a solution for New York. The Extended Producer Responsibility Act (S.1185A/A.5801) would require manufacturers to cover the cost of recycling their product packaging and paper.
Items such as plastic containers, plastic film, glass bottles, cans, catalogs and cardboard, make up more than 40% of our solid waste stream. Not only does this legislation shifts costs away from taxpayers, but just as importantly, it provides an incentive for producers to create less packaging in the first place and make packaging easier to recycle and without toxic chemicals.
While New York would be the first state to adopt this policy, it has been in effect in parts of Europe and Canada for decades. Where implemented, recycling rates reach as high as 90% (compared to less than 50% in the U.S.), less waste is created, and the cost of consumer goods has not increased.
It is estimated that enacting this legislation in New York can significantly increase recycling rates, create more than 1,000 green sector jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.3 million metric tons, and provide $80 million in savings for local governments. Those savings for local government mean savings for taxpayers.
Brian Smith is associate executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.