State Director, Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center
State Director, Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center
Testimony In Favor of S426 to the Senate Environment Committee
Doug O’Malley, Director, Environment New Jersey
June 13, 2022
It is no secret that we have a waste problem in New Jersey and the country – in fact, the U.S. throws out enough plastic approximately every 11 hours to fill MetLife Stadium, and that amount is increasing.
Our society continually produces goods designed to be used once or temporarily and then thrown away. Most discarded materials are then landfilled or incinerated, creating pollution and requiring producers to extract more natural resources to make new materials.
Municipalities across New Jersey and country are struggling to support recycling programs while facing an ever-increasing stream of hard to recycle waste from the products we buy. Our recycling rates are low, people have lost faith in the recycling system, and recycling markets for our plastic waste are less and less reliable, all because producers continue to make wasteful, often non-recyclable products with no responsibility for management. S426 can help address these problems by requiring that producers support infrastructure to manage packaging waste, while incentivizing them to make more recyclable products.
Our report Breaking the Waste Cycle details how producer responsibility has proven to be an effective approach to reducing waste and improving recycling. Such laws already exist in jurisdictions around the world, and they are working well to manage packaging and provide safe disposal for polluting and hazardous items.
Consumers are frustrated by the lack of sustainable options on the shelf, and the ease in which they should be able to recycle. At the same time, companies that produce wasteful single-use plastic products, beverage containers, and other waste that litters our communities, fills our landfills, and is burned in our incinerators have avoided paying up for decades. A big reason why packaging pollution is on the rise is because producers are absolved of all responsibility for where their products end up, and whether their products are labeled correctly. That leaves you and me with confusion and limited choices, meanwhile footing the bill for managing the waste. This law begins to change that by requiring producers to bear some of the costs of our recycling system.
To be clear: recycling can’t solve our waste problem by itself. That’s why we support a strong producer responsibility law that encourages not only more recyclable packaging, but less packaging, period. With that said, we must also aggressively enact measures to reduce waste and move away from packaging that causes harm to the planet and public health in its production and disposal. New Jersey has already been a leader on that front by passing our state-wide ban on foam food packaging and single-use plastic bags; but there is certainly more we can do.
Background on Extended Producer Responsibility Programs:
Producer responsibility programs around the world have existed for decades and have successfully increased collection and recycling rates for the products they cover. With the growing urgency of the climate crisis, the rising impact of plastic pollution, and the continuing impacts of China’s waste import ban on America’s recycling system, U.S. cities and states, as well as the federal government, should adopt thoughtfully designed producer responsibility programs – especially for packaging and printed products.
Producer responsibility is a proven approach to reducing waste and improving recycling. Under producer responsibility programs, manufacturers – not individuals or taxpayers – are responsible for the waste their products create, and bear responsibility for the collection and proper recycling of those products at the end of their useful lives. This incentivizes producers to design their products to be more environmentally friendly throughout their lifecycle.
Producer responsibility is particularly important when it comes to addressing waste from packaging, paper and single-use plastics.
- Containers and packaging account for roughly 30 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW), with 80.1 million tons of these materials thrown away in 2017. These materials clog landfills and incinerators, especially following the recent decision by several foreign countries – most notably China – to stop accepting most U.S. waste exports, dramatically increasing the cost of recycling for many U.S. communities.
- In 2020, we saw the introduction of federal legislation to hold producers accountable for wasteful products, reduce packaging, and phase out single-use plastic products. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would place the financial burden of waste management and the clean-up of plastic pollution on the companies that manufacture and sell those products, and require producers to design their products in such a way as to minimize their environmental impacts, among other requirements.
Effective producer responsibility programs can play an important role in moving the United States toward a circular, zero-waste economy. In adopting those programs, states like New Jersey should:
- Integrate producer responsibility programs into an overall approach to waste reduction that:
- First and foremost, reduces the amount of waste generated;
- Encourages the reuse, repair and refurbishment of products whenever possible;
- Recycles or composts all remaining materials, and;
- Landfills or incinerates as little material as possible.
- Require producers to bear all of the end-of-life costs of their products, including waste collection, hauling, recycling, composting, landfilling, incineration and litter cleanup costs.
- Adjust any fees to incentivize producers to use recycled content in their products and design products that last and are easy and economical to repair, recycle or compost.
- Incentivize the repair or reuse of products where possible, and the recycling or composting of products that have reached the end of their useful lives.
- Set high standards for oversight and transparency at every stage of the process to ensure that producers are complying with requirements.
Why Extended Producer Responsibility?
People are pessimistic about being able to reduce their plastic waste. They have good reason, given that recycling rates are down nationwide.
Fifty-four percent of respondents to a new World Wildlife Fund poll say they worry their individual actions won’t affect the overall amount of plastic waste.
The poll, released last Monday, reveals a despondent populace: More than 75 percent said they believe that none or only a small fraction of plastic waste in the U.S. actually gets recycled. That sense of futility in turn may be jeopardizing recycling rates: 46 percent say they worry it’s pointless to put plastic into the recycling bin because so little of it gets recycled.
At the same time, an increasing share of people think plastics do more good than harm — 45 percent, up from 36 percent in 2020.
But they also want more reusable options: 78 percent said they would prefer reusable to disposable plastic products, and 75 percent said they would prefer to buy things with minimal plastic packaging.
They’re increasingly seeing it as a problem for businesses to fix, the poll finds. Fifty-two percent said businesses that produce or sell plastic bear the most responsibility for reducing waste, up 5 points from 2020. And just 25 percent pinned the blame on individuals who use plastic, down from 32 percent in 2020.
Action That Can Be Taken via S426:
To achieve the reduction in packaging we want to see, it will be critical that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) watchdog implementation and ensure that a program actually rewards reusable and truly recyclable – not hypothetically recyclable products.
Chairman Smith, you have put tremendous effort into this bill over the short-term and we thank you for your past and current work. As we move forward to discuss this bill in 2022, we must maintain proper guardrails to ensure effective enforcement of this bill and independent oversight of industry. For example, no money from this program or state dollars should be used to subsidize the conversion of plastic waste to fossil fuels and feedstocks, so-called “advanced-recycling” or incineration of waste.
Ultimately, Environment New Jersey would like to see more emphasis put on waste reduction, especially for single-use packaging and priority single-use products. We all know the saying, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but too often we forget: It’s reduce first, then reuse, and when all else fails: recycle.
The principles that should be incorporated into final legislation should include: 1) Mandatory reduction in statute, through reduction or reuse by 50% over a 10-year period. 2) Eliminate toxic chemicals from packaging, most notably PFAS and phthalates. 3) Ensure recycling is defined as such and not included chemical industry attempts to include waste-to-energy incineration or “advanced recycling” that promotes chemical recycling. 4) Direct funding to cities and town for waste reduction which is environmentally and economically more feasible. 5) Provide certitude for accountability of packaging industry with clear standards, auditing and an independent oversight that doesn’t rely on industry self-regulation. 6) The original EPR was bottle bills, which New Jersey never adopted. Bottle bills are incredibly effective for reducing litter, increasing recycling rates and creating a cleaner environment 7) Create environmental standards for packaging to ensure the use of recyclable materials.
S426 Sets Strong & Clear Mandates:
1) All single-use plastic packaging be reduced by 25% by 2030.
2) All single-use packaging should be composed of at least 75% post-consumer content by 2027.
3) All single-use packaging be readily recyclable or compostable by 2030.
Areas Of Improvement for S426:
1) Clear definitions of recyclable and compostable.
2) Ban toxic chemicals from packaging.
3) Including clear language restricting waste-to-energy incineration & advanced recycling.
4) Require producers to pay into a state program to reduce waste and improve recycling.
5) Establish a bottle bill that will incentive improve recycling rates/streams & reduce litter.
We share the goal of solving our waste problem and turning back the tide on packaging pollution. Producer responsibility is a critical tool in achieving a zero-waste future. We would like to see a full producer responsibility model be considered in New Jersey, in which producers are responsible for the full cost of the system, everything from product design, to collection, to processing.
We know recycling alone can’t deliver all of the environmental protections that we need, especially when dealing with plastic waste. We have to prevent waste at the source. It’s reduce first, then reuse, then recycle. We need to make sure we’re supporting waste reduction in tandem with any recycling program in New Jersey.
If your bathtub is overflowing, you don’t start by bailing out the water– you start by turning off the tap. We need to turn off the plastic tap, or the problem of plastic pollution in our environment and in our communities will only get worse.