MAILBAG: Recycling at a crossroads in New York

By Paul Ploumis

Recycling is our state’s greatest team effort. Millions of New York residents, including here in Niagara County, set out some 3 billion pounds of newspapers, magazines, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles and metal cans for curbside pick-up and recycling each year.

Recycling programs deliver environmental benefits including waste reduction, conservation of precious natural resources and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. From an economic standpoint, recycling supports thousands of green sector jobs across the state and preserves limited landfill space. But, more can be done! We are financing an underutilized program: Nearly 60% of recyclables never make it to our carts/bins.

Local recycling programs are on the ropes and are struggling to survive. The value of curbside recyclables is insufficient to cover the costs to sort and process the recyclables. These costs for Niagara County municipalities and recycling system rate payers are estimated to exceed $4.4 million in 2021.

The catalyst for this financial dilemma? Severely reduced demand as China no longer accepts much of the world’s recyclables. On a local level, the challenge to municipal officials to maintain recycling programs is made even more difficult because of budget challenges due to COVID-19 and tax cap limitations, but also a rapidly evolving stream of un-recyclable materials.

Local recycling is at a crossroads. Municipalities cannot long sustain the increased costs to process recyclables caused by decreased market demand and an outdated recovery system in need of investment and modernization.

To respond to this challenge, the New York State Senate and Assembly have teamed up to propose legislation (S.1185) that would require consumer product manufactures to finance the recycling of their paper products and packaging materials and invest in modernizing the operations at local recycling facilities. Engaging producers in the management of end-of-life packaging will incentivize manufacturers to: 1) reduce packaging; 2) increase the packaging’s recycled content; and 3) make the packaging easier to recycle.

The fact is, the cost of recycling is going to continue to increase for homeowners across Niagara County. We need to look at ways to reduce those costs, and one of those ways is to engage manufacturers in managing their products. This has a two-fold benefit. First, it relieves some burden from property taxpayers. And two, if history has shown us anything, it's that when the producers have to own some of the cost, they begin to look for ways to reduce the packaging waste to reduce their costs. This benefits everyone.