The Progress and Potential of Waste Reduction and Recycling in New York

By Peter Aronson

The average New Yorker produces an astonishing five pounds of trash per day, accumulating to a total of 15 million tons of waste statewide per year. Too much of that is from unnecessary packaging, a problem that will only get worse as the delivery economy continues to grow. While New York has made great strides in waste reduction in recent years, the New York League of Conservation Voters believes it can and must do more. 

Among the League’s top priority in the 2023 State Legislative Session was the Waste Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act (SB 4246). In a previous iteration, which NYLCV also supported, it was known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). The measure, which is meant to shift the responsibility for reducing packaging waste from the consumer to the producer, would place the onus on manufacturers of paper and packaging, requiring them to fund existing municipal recycling or create and fund new recycling programs.

“The urgency of the climate crisis demands systemwide waste diversion and realignment of incentives for manufacturers,” wrote NYLCV President Julie Tighe in an op-ed. “This bill achieves that by requiring packaging and distribution companies to reduce their waste or foot the bill. This law alone is estimated to reduce landfill waste from New York City by 600,000 pounds every day – the same weight as about 344 trucks.” 

“Extended producer responsibility policies like this one aren’t new,” Tighe continued. “They are utilized around the globe to shift the financing of waste management from the taxpayer to the producers of waste.”

The EPR approach is already in use in New York for multiple products, including e-waste, paint and pharmaceuticals

Measures like these are part of the reason New York was ranked fifth in the country in waste reduction in a November 2022 article published on the website LawnStarterAnd in the year since there were several additional victories on the waste reduction front in New York State and New York City, including:

  • In late December 2022, Gov. Hochul signed into law the Digital Fair Repair Act, aka the Right to Repair Act, which requires all manufacturers of cell phones, computers, ipads, digital watches, etc., to inform unaffiliated repair shops and individual consumers in New York with the information to fix such devices. This will reduce the amount of electronic components making their way into the waste stream and increase consumer reuse or resale of fixable devices by giving the owners the option to fix the devices themselves or to take them to a repair shop that would be cheaper than the manufacturer.
  • Also in December, Gov. Hochul signed into law the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bill for carpet manufacturers. The state generates 515 million pounds of carpet waste annually. Virtually no carpets are recycled in NYS and many contain unhealthy chemicals. The law requires the carpet industry to establish recycling programs, including providing convenient dropoff locations, and to phase out use of harmful chemicals in carpet production.
  • In February, New York City Mayor Eric Adam announced the most comprehensive urban curbside composting program in the country. Following a pilot program begun in Queens in 2022, curbside  composting will now expand to the entire city, with Queens already in full swing, followed by Brooklyn in October 2023, Staten Island and the Bronx in March 2024 and Manhattan in October 2024.
  • In February, New York City enacted the much-publicized “skip the stuff” law, requiring restaurants, other food providers, food couriers and other food delivery platforms to provide eating utensils, napkins, condiment packets and extra eating containers only if a consumer asks for them. According to the Mayor’s office, 36 million pounds of single-use plastic food-ware has been collected from the city’s residential waste system each year.
  • In June, New York City passed its Zero Waste Act, a package of five bills that makes participation in the forthcoming residential curbside organics collection mandatory, sets zero waste targets for 2030, requires annual reporting on zero waste efforts, creates NYC food-scrap drop off sites and establishes new recycling centers in the five boroughs. “This will empower each community and every resident to fully participate in waste reduction efforts and contribute to building a more sustainable New York City,” the NYLCV wrote when the bill was passed. 

On another positive note, New York State recently released a draft of its future Solid Waste Management Plan, which sets forth major focus areas, including waste reduction, and encourages a circular economy, which emphasizes the reuse and recycling of products so nothing gets wasted and so all resources are used to their maximum. NYLCV wrote about it extensively here

As we look ahead, reducing waste remains a critical component of accomplishing the state’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and by 85 percent by 2050, and therefore reducing packaging waste is a must-do. 

In 2021 Maine became the first state to enact a packaging EPR law, with California, Colorado, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington having since brought the total to six U.S. states with EPR measures on the books. 

We are also encouraged that Gov. Kathy Hochul threw her support behind a similar bill in her 2023 Executive Budget after also pushing for such a bill in the previous year’s budget negotiations.

New York City and New York State have made real progress on waste reduction in recent years. Our elected officials have demonstrated that they understand the problem and are willing to take action. And since few waste problems are as frequently obvious as the need to reduce unnecessary packaging – it fills New Yorkers’ trash and recycling bins weekly – we believe the time is ripe for a solution. So as we celebrate New York’s waste reduction successes, let’s keep the momentum going and rein in out-of-control packaging. 

07.31.23 // AUTHOR: Devin Callahan //