Mandate to Require Recycled Materials in Containers Gets Mixed Reception

Bill could undermine prospect for ban on single-use plastic bags, some environmentalists fear as manufacturers question technical feasibility
Credit: Jasmin Sessler from Pixabay
The bill would require certain amounts of recycled plastic, paper and glass to be used in plastic and glass carryout containers, carryout bags and trash bags.

The Legislature is looking at requiring some containers be manufactured with a minimum amount of recycled materials as a way to reduce plastic pollution. It’s an idea with some backing from advocates but with a caveat — not if it undermines pending approval of a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags.

The issue arose Wednesday during a committee hearing on a bill (S-2515) that aims to require certain amounts of recycled plastic, paper and glass to be used in plastic and glass carryout containers, carryout bags and trash bags.

Beyond reducing the manufacture of new plastics, the bill is viewed by proponents as helping to create new markets for recycled plastics and other materials that have otherwise collapsed, in part because of a decision by China to stop accepting recycled materials.

Gary Sondermeyer, vice president of operations at the Bayshore Recycling Corp. in Woodbridge, called the bill the most comprehensive blueprint for establishing a recycling market ever attempted in New Jersey.

“The point is to get as much of this stuff out of landfills and incinerators,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee and bill’s sponsor. It also would make recycling more feasible here while helping out municipalities who have seen recycling costs spike because the recyclables they collect end up in garbage dumps, he said.

Tentative support

The legislation won tentative backing from a range of business groups, although several had concerns that the percentages of recycling content mandated by the bill are not technically feasible. Environmental organizations also supported the measure, but only if it does not act as a substitute for a different Smith bill that would ban single-use plastic bags and tote bags.

That bill (S-864) won passage from the Senate this past March but has yet to be taken up by the Assembly. It is one of the top legislative priorities for many prominent environmental groups but has faltered in previous legislative sessions.

Alex Ambrose of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, endorsed the recycled-content bill but expressed concern, echoed by others, that the measure could undermine prospects for the single-use plastic ban.

“We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic single-use bag problem. The single-use plastic bag is not a recycling problem. It’s a manufacturing problem,’’ she said.

“Absolutely,’’ Smith agreed, saying he hoped the single-use bill would be taken up by the Assembly once lawmakers are less pressured by dealing with problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier, Smith denied his recycling bill was a substitute for the single-use plastic ban.

Why the skepticism?

Others were a bit skeptical, however. “He’s still pushing it, but is the Assembly even going to listen?’’ asked Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who also endorsed the minimum-content bill.

“This legislation is an important step in the right direction when it comes to mitigating plastic use and reforming wasteful product packaging,’’ he said. The bill prohibits the sale of polystyrene loose fill packaging.

Some business groups did not oppose the bill, saying their members are already trying to increase the amount of recycled content in various products like containers and bags. But some of the bill’s proposed recycled content requirements — ranging from 10% to 35% are just not feasible, they said.

“There are some challenges to meeting these goals,’’ said Mary Ellen Peppard of the New Jersey Food Council. Those obstacles include insufficient rates of recycling and collection, and a shortage of recycled materials to meet voluntary goals already established by its members.

Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, urged the committee to establish a special committee to look at the specific recycled-content requirements outlined in the bill.

“What we’re saying is let’s do it the right way,’’ said Hart, speaking for the plastics manufacturing industry, which is not opposed to the bill. Lawmakers need to explore what is technically feasible and what is not, he said.

Others disagreed. “We have to push the envelope to where we want to go,’’ said Steve Changaris, of the New Jersey chapter of the National Waste Recycling Operation. “Thirty-five percent is as good a starting point as any,’’ he said.

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