New York’s Action—and Attitudes—to Address Plastic Pollution

New York’s action to address plastic pollution has been on a roll in recent years with state and city leaders passing several pieces of new legislation in an attempt to curb plastic pollution, such as banning plastic straws, bags, foam containers, and other single-use plastic items.

This year, New York State lawmakers attempted to pass new legislation that could have cut wasteful and polluting single-use plastic packaging by 50%, curbing climate-warming emissions, and requiring polluters to pay: the Packaging Reduction & Recycling Infrastructure Act (A5322b/S4246b). While the bill failed to pass in the New York State Legislature in June due to intensive lobbying by the plastic industry, it had been widely supported by many lawmakers and the public. Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) intern Gabrielle Gomez spoke to young New Yorkers to better understand their attitudes and actions toward plastic, and where they see opportunities for positive future policy change.

What Do Young New Yorkers Think?

In a small anonymous survey, PPC intern Gabrielle asked  40 New York State residents primarily between the ages of 18 to 25 twelve questions about their views on plastic pollution and policies. The survey participants’ responses highlighted the negative impacts of plastic pollution on their health, communities, and the challenges of avoiding plastic without the existence of comprehensive policies and solutions.

“It’s everywhere and unavoidable.”

“It’s in everything I use and no matter how hard I try to stay away from it, it’s damn near impossible. Got all those microplastics chilling in my cells right now.”

“Microplastics and too many take-out containers in the house. Also not knowing or being able to recycle them leads me to feel guilty and hoard it which affects my mental health.”

Around 84% of survey participants reported being at least somewhat aware of the plastic problem New York faces, and more than half said they were concerned about the impact plastic has on the environment. According to participants, it seems many people try to extend the lifespan of single-use plastic products by repurposing them in various ways. For example, some participants said they reused plastic bags as trash bags and plastic bottles as DIY vases for flowers. Some have reported saving unused single-use plastic utensils from fast food establishments or repurposing plastic take-out containers for storage at home. One person mentioned that they get creative with their reuse of single-use plastic by melting and molding it into buttons, door stops, and hinges. Most people, however, simply attempt to recycle the plastic they accumulate.

Over one third of New York residents polled reported being unaware of local initiatives or policies that are aimed at reducing plastic pollution. While some said they haven’t given much thought to how plastic impacts their health or future, the majority of people polled still follow New York’s plastic and other recycling guidelines. Some said they question the efficacy of existing policies to mitigate plastic pollution. Only 2.7% of New Yorkers polled said they believe that the policies currently in place are very effective in reducing plastic pollution, while the majority of people polled said they find it challenging to reduce their plastic pollution: 

“[Plastic is] everywhere and hard to find good, reliable, cheap alternatives. Sometimes you can’t escape having to use it when no alternatives are present.”

“Being in places that don’t recycle and having to throw away recyclable material in the waste bin.”

“The places that say they recycle, don’t really recycle.”

What Happened to the Packaging Reduction & Recycling Infrastructure Act?  

The Packaging Reduction & Recycling Infrastructure Act that failed to pass in June, had aimed to reduce the use of single-use plastic packaging by 50 percent in New York State over 12 years. The law would have required companies that sell or distribute plastic packaging materials to find more sustainable packaging options or pay a fee, which would go to the state’s municipalities, and develop a plan for packaging reduction and recycling. Currently, taxpayers and municipalities foot most of the costs of plastic pollution disposal, but the law would have required companies to be responsible for financially and logistically managing the plastic pollution they generate. The Packaging Reduction & Recycling Infrastructure Act would have also banned some types of toxic substances, like PFAS, and materials in packaging. 

With its great potential to reduce plastic pollution in New York by holding polluters accountable, it is perhaps unsurprising that the bill faced serious opposition from various plastic pollution industry groups. The industry opposition claimed, without clear evidence, that such regulations on single-use plastic packaging would lead to “increased costs for consumers” and “empty grocery shelves.” Plastic industry groups and business critics also claimed the law would cause logistical challenges in packaging practices across diverse industries—despite the fact that readily available plastic-free packaging alternatives exist.

Judith Enck, former EPA Administrator and President of Beyond Plastics, commented on the bill’s failure to pass: “We have come this far; we are not giving up. Plastic pollution is not going anywhere and neither are we.”

Legislation Is On the Move

Reducing plastic pollution is not a new idea in New York. Based on PPC intern Gabrielle’s research and this poll by Oceana, it is something many people support. Over the past few years, New York has enacted a series of laws to curb plastic distribution and use:

  • In 2020, the ban on single-use plastic bags was enforced with a 5 cent nonrefundable fee that can be avoided by bringing in your own bag. The fee is distributed, with 3 cents going to the Environmental Protection Fund, and 2 cents to the redistribution for usable bags.
  • In 2020, a polystyrene foam, or packing peanuts, ban was implemented in New York. Retail, restaurants and wholesale businesses can no longer sell or distribute foam containers and packaging in or into New York state.
  • In 2021, the ban on single-use plastic straws except upon request was implemented in New York. Restaurants, cafes, and other food establishments should offer alternatives to plastic straws, but many cannot seem to escape the sturdy plastic straws provided.
  • In 2023, the Skip the Stuff ban on plastic utensils, napkins, extra containers, and more prevented food establishments from providing these items for takeout or on the go orders. A 1-year “warning period” ended June 30, 2024, and starting July 1, 2-24, businesses can receive violations with fines for failing to comply with restrictions.
  • This year, New York State lawmakers agreed on Small Plastic Bottle Hospitality Personal Care Product Restrictions that prohibit hotels with 50 rooms or more from distributing small plastic bottles containing shampoos, lotions, and other personal care products, effective January 1, 2025. On January 1, 2026, hotels with fewer than 50 rooms will also be prohibited from distributing the small plastic bottles. Instead, hotels may distribute plastic-free personal care products, or offer these products in refillable dispensers.   
  • Currently being amended is the bottle bill, or the Returnable Container Act. This bill puts a 5 cent deposit on bottles and other figures, once returned to the retailer, the 5 cents is returned. This bill has helped in reducing pollution of local areas and recycled tons of materials.                        

There is no doubt that we have come a long way in reducing plastic; however, there is much more work to be done, and many New Yorkers agree. During interviews with PPC Intern Gabrielle, the public shared several ideas that are in line with best-available policies, including better sorting facilities, stricter bans, incentives for more businesses to reduce their use of plastic and production of waste, and clearer guidelines on recycling. Ultimately, the state must support making the alternatives to plastic more affordable and accessible to the everyday person.

“Don’t focus on the individual so much, aim for the big dogs. This is a consumer economy, and plastic pollution will continue as long as this economy is such a one,” one New Yorker surveyed said. Plastic-free, nontoxic systems of reuse, refill, repair, share, and regeneration help us waste less, and live healthier. 

Strong policies are one of the most effective tools making a difference to reduce plastic pollution. Effective policies to hold polluters accountable, like the recently failed packaging bill, work to reduce plastic pollution at the source. One of the biggest challenges is addressing industry lobbying and making sure that peoples’ voices—not corporations—get the last word.

Take Action

Break Free From Plastic at the Capitol. By Tim Aubry/Greenpeace

In New York and across the United States, people want to see an end to plastic pollution. Tell your representative it’s time to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2023 for the health and future of humans, wildlife, plants, and the planet. This national legislation establishes plastic reduction plans that would help create a more sustainable, equitable future for Americans, with proven solutions that will better protect impacted communities, reform our broken recycling system, and shift the financial burden of waste management off of municipalities and taxpayers to where it belongs: the producers of plastic pollution.

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