To reduce plastic, reduce packaging

Posted 11/2/22

In 2020, the U.S. produced 367 million metric tons of plastics — equivalent to the weight of 1,108 Empire State Buildings. That amount is on track to quadruple by 2050, unless —

Unless we act now to change course.

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To reduce plastic, reduce packaging


In 2020, the U.S. produced 367 million metric tons of plastics — equivalent to the weight of 1,108 Empire State Buildings. That amount is on track to quadruple by 2050, unless —

Unless we act now to change course. 

Made from petrochemicals, plastics present numerous threats. Extremely stable on a molecular level, they will persist for centuries, leaching toxic chemicals while breaking into ever-smaller fragments that can be ingested or inhaled. 

They are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. If plastics were a country, they’d be the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. By 2030, the industry will contribute more to climate change than all the coal-fired power plants in the country.

Clearly, there are many compelling reasons to get our plastics addiction under control. But this is not a challenge for individuals to tackle in their personal lives. 

Instead, we need laws to change this worrisome trajectory. And since more than 40 percent of virgin plastic production today is used to make single-use packaging, cutting back on plastic packaging is an obvious place to start. 

Given the perennial gridlock in Congress, success is more likely at the state level—and New York could lead the way. Assemblyman Steve Englebright and Sen. Rachel May have sponsored a strong bill that calls for a 50 percent reduction in packaging over 10 years, with incremental reductions required every two years to ensure progress stays on track. 

The bill also requires that within 12 years, 90 percent of the remaining packaging should be fully recyclable, made of recycled materials, or compostable. Both lawmakers have also introduced legislation to expand and update New York’s 40-year-old bottle bill. Advocates consider the two bills a bundle that should be passed together. 

It won’t be easy. Heightened concern about plastic pollution has created a political climate in which legislators feel they have to do something. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, now that public opinion has opened the door, lobbyists for the plastics industry have darted through and are promoting technologies they misleadingly call

“chemical” or “advanced recycling.” 

In-depth research on such facilities conducted by the National Resources Defense Council found that they are actually doing a form of plastic incineration, using energy-intensive processes to turn plastic into dirty fuel. Generating large volumes of hazardous waste and air pollutants and greenhouse gases, these facilities are invariably sited in communities that are disproportionately low-income, lived in by people of color, or both. 

True recycling offers ecological and economic benefits by returning materials to the production cycle. Rather than being a solution, the waste-to-fuel approach would actually perpetuate demand for plastics. Any legislation to reduce packaging needs to explicitly prohibit plastic burning from being counted as recycling. 

It should also include restrictions on toxic substances in packaging. Today in the U.S., it is perfectly legal for packaging—including packaging for food—to contain hundreds of toxic chemicals. Not only are these substances known to leach into food and to harm human health, wildlife and the environment, but they also make it potentially hazardous to use recycled materials in new products. 

Effective packaging-reduction bills should also avoid loopholes, which guarantee years of litigation and delay. For instance, in June California passed legislation to reduce single-use plastic packaging and foodware. However, it exempts single-use material that “presents unique challenges in complying.” Language like this would permit the continued use of expanded polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam. 

Nor should such legislation permit packaging companies to self-regulate. We wouldn’t expect tobacco companies to implement effective anti-smoking laws. Similarly, companies that make packaging have no incentive to sell less of it. 

What can you do? Most state legislative sessions will resume in January, but there’s still value in making your voice heard now. Call your state legislators and let them know you support effective extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging reduction. 

If you’re in New York, you can refer to the Englebright–May bills by their name and number, Extended Producer Responsibility Program for Packaging (A10185/S09493). If you’re in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, urge your legislators to champion an effective EPR packaging reduction bill and send them a link to the model text at 

Both New Jersey and Pennsylvania also need to pass container-deposit laws, often called bottle bills. Recycling rates are significantly higher in states with bottle bills. 

Done correctly, packaging-reduction laws shift the burden of managing waste to the companies that make the products, which currently have no fiscal responsibility for their products at the end of their life cycle. To meet the new standards, engineers would redesign their packaging to use less plastic. 

But poorly thought-out legislation could undo all the good work anti-plastic advocates have been doing — ensuring the next several decades are marked by an ever-greater expansion of plastic production. 

Rebekah Creshkoff lives in the Upper Delaware region. She is a volunteer with Beyond Plastics.

greenhouse gases, emissions, environmental crisis, plastic production


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  • kmaberman

    There was a meeting of the Legislature this morning to discuss the impending "garbage calamity," which will occur in 2-3 years, when the landfill that we are currently trucking our garbage to, closes. The Legislature is looking into a solution that would involve untried technology, unknown side effects of air and water pollution, water usage, and the possible release of other very toxic chemicals into our environment. The Hughes Energy proposal is new, unproven technology, and perhaps there is a place for it in our future, but until we KNOW, we should, I believe, focus on the solutions that we know: mandatory residential and commercial recycling, rapid phase-out of single-use plastics, expanding and updating the 1982 Bottle Bill, further development of local (and personal) composting systems, and putting pressure on our State and Federal representatives to pass the Extended Producer Responsibility Act, which will help put the solution back in the court of the folks who created it in the first place.

    As we move more and more toward electric vehicles, the fossil fuel industry will become more and more vigorous in creating more and more plastic to maintain their bottom lines. Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of plastic-producing factories all over the country and the world, but clustered around "industrial alleys" and areas of poverty that become victims of environmental injustice.

    People, in general, are incredibly lax about their consumption and disposal of difficult substances. That needs to change! Individuals and businesses could do a great deal more, and if it takes financial pressure, then that's what we need to do.

    Kathie Aberman

    Liberty, NY

    Thursday, November 3, 2022 Report this