Robert Lange, Commissioner

April 27, 2021

7 Min Read
While Recycling as an Operational Program is Fundamentally about Individuals Recycling, It is Also a Regulatory Solution

I read with interest Chaz Miller’s recent article entitled John Oliver Is Wrong: Recycling Is All About Individual Responsibility (Waste 360: April 21, 2021), and while I usually have agreed with most of Chaz’s articles in the past, I found his reemphasis upon individual responsibility in the success or failure of recycling of plastics somewhat misleading in the context of the actual Last Week Tonight episode.  Though it is in fact true that the success or failure of recycling programs in general is all about consistent and proper participation by the public, I believe the real point of the episode was the role of manufacturers in both creating the problem of plastic waste and their very limited role in aiding in solutions for addressing that waste.  It is understood that any piece confined to less than thirty minutes in duration is to be superficial in its coverage of a topic as multidimensional and complex as plastics and recycling yet what the episode highlighted for me was the fact that in a free market capitalist economy, regulators are always chasing yesterday’s environmental challenges rather than solving today’s environmental problems.

A Case in Point

At a meeting with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) officials not too long ago I had raised the fact that one of the fundamental problems with the existing New York State Bottle Bill (NYSBB) is that the retail and consumer context in which it was conceived and executed is fundamentally different from the operating context in which we currently find ourselves; yet the law has never been altered to account for these significant changes in retail and consumer consumption habits.  In particular, beverage manufacturers have created more and more products along with aggressive marketing of those products into ever more retail corners of America.  Unfortunately the response from one of the officials was “Oh well, that’s capitalism.” What this flippant response inadvertently exposes is the regulatory challenges presented by a free market capitalist economy.  Challenges most evident in the unchecked proliferation of plastic packaging and the attempts thus far to address some of the unanticipated post-consumer consequences through recycling programs.

The NYSBB that was created in the 1980s was not as a recycling law as originally formulated and didn’t require the returned beverage containers to be recycled. Rather it was designed to control litter statewide.  Basically conceived as a way to encourage consumers, through a prepaid deposit system to return (redeem) their carbonated beverage containers to any store that sold this same retail product. Underlying was the law was the assumption that consumers will return their spent containers to the point of purchase, at the time of its passage typically a grocery store or beverage distributor; where consumers usually purchased their beverages in bulk containers.  The main exception to this was the carbonated beverages sold from vending machines, such as those found outside gas stations and motels at the time. 

While this structure, though somewhat flawed from its onset, worked initially both through the efforts of consumers returning spent items to secure their unclaimed deposits and by the efforts of an army of volunteers enlisted by the prospect of claiming unredeemed deposits abandoned in trash receptacles or worse as litter, over time the changes to the retailing and packaging of beverages by manufacturers and the habits of consumers changed so fundamentally as to strain the viability of the NYSBB’s structure. 

Shortly after the adoption of the NYSBB a number of things happened to further complicate matters.  Manufacturers, to further expand market share and profits, began to introduce more and more single serve beverage containers and to aggressively market the products into as many retail outlets as possible, far beyond the confines of grocery and beverage distributers. This proliferation is so pronounced today that you can hardly avoid finding the presence of such beverages at any form of retail space.  Often these products are designed to be consumed far from home and shortly after purchase. 

Typically such single serve beverages are not consumed at the point of purchase such as at a home or restaurants but rather on the go.   Consumers either have to carry the empty container with them until reaching home, or toss it into the nearest trash receptacle or recycling receptacle (not a commonly available option due to the contamination habits of pedestrians).  As manufacturers further expanded their market share, they also expanded the gap between the consumer’s consumption of the beverage product and the availability and convenience of returning the spent beverage container for deposit redemption.  Further exacerbating this situation was the introduction in 1980s of beverages packaged in plastic rather than glass containers.  Beverage manufacturers had been testing the viability of switching to plastic packaging for a number of years because of the potential transportation cost savings associated with lighter packaging material and less fragility for transport.  Once potential health concerns with plastic packaging had been adequately addressed to receive oversight approval, plastic beverage packaging quickly became ubiquitous. 

At the same time that beverage manufacturers began expanding their market share of plastic packaged beverages, they also began funding marketing to assuage the concerns of environmentalists and others regarding the potential environmental impacts of the increased use of plastics for packaging.  They began funding environmental organizations and supporting recycling programs both directly and indirectly through marketing campaigns.  This, as the John Oliver piece clearly points out, established the responsibility of post-consumer waste with municipal government and the consumer through recycling programs and not the manufacturer of the product itself.  Presently the industry heavily funds a number of organizations under variations of the generic wishful title of “closed loop” organizations, incorporated to help maintain the status quo by preserving existing manufacturing trends. In other words, by funding post-consumer solutions rather than questioning the long-term viability of continuing to create packaging whose adverse impact upon the environment far exceeds its useful life as packaging.

Recently, as the John Oliver episode points out, the idea of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation to address post-consumer plastic and other material packaging has caught the attention of legislative bodies in a number of states, including New York.   This is an effort to aid local municipal recycling programs that are dealing with rising operating cost combined with declining recycling material markets, and to encourage manufacturers to move away from packaging that is not recyclable and has long-term impacts upon the environment.  Rather than banning certain packaging, which would perhaps be a much more prudent solution, EPR legislation is designed to discourage the production of environmentally unsustainable packaging through pricing.  In theory, this is achieved by applying fees to recyclable packaging to cover its post-consumer cost of collection processing and marketing; and a still higher fee to non-recyclable or toxic packaging and therefore making it less profitable by incorporating into the packaging its full life cycle cost, from cradle to grave.    

While EPR, depending upon how it is conceived and executed, would likely assist in discouraging the continued use of non-recyclable and potentially toxic packaging materials, it will only do so if the add-on cost is high enough to both discourage the manufacturer of the product from continuing to produce it and consumers from continuing to purchase it.  In the absence of political will and support to introduce bans of environmentally impactful materials, a successful EPR needs to be combined with consumer convenience fees.   While manufacturers are no doubt the major culprits behind the proliferation of plastic packaging, consumers also bare some responsibility in their continued attraction to what they perceive to be the greater convenience associated with some plastic packaging.  Combining EPR with convenience fees for the consumer at the point of purchase would also help to discourage the growing use of plastics for all varieties of packaging where more sustainable alternatives are readily available.

Robert Lange was the prime architect of New York City’s recycling program and the director of the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program for 20 years. He retired from Sanitation in 2016.

About the Author(s)

Robert Lange

Commissioner, Solid Waste Management Authority, North Hempstead, L.I.

Robert Lange was the prime architect of New York City's recycling program and the director of the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program for 20 years. Prior to leaving city service, Lange was responsible for the Office of Beneficial Reuse Planning, Infrastructure Development & Management, within the Bureau of Solid Waste Management of the New York City Department of Sanitation. He recently accepted a position as the Commissioner of a Solid Waste Authority on Long Island. 

 

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