As a mother of two boys, there’s one lesson I’ve always tried to impart: If you make a mess, you clean it up. Now, a month into the incredible honor of serving as commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation, I’ve got a message for the companies responsible for mountains of packaging that the men and women of our department have to use taxpayer dollars to clean up every day: This is your mess, and you have to clean it up or bear the cost.
I’m a lifelong New Yorker, and that means I’ve always known how essential our Sanitation services are, getting 24 million pounds of trash and recycling off the streets every single day. But as commissioner, I’ve quickly come to see just how much of this is waste that didn’t need to exist in the first place — and how much it costs taxpayers. The city spends around $450 million per year to process and export trash and recycling.
These piles of discarded material — and the price tag to taxpayers — are directly related to the choices made by manufacturers about what they put in their products. Does that item you ordered online really need to come in a plastic shell inside a cardboard box? Where is all that bubble wrap going to go? Why is fruit with a rind sold in a plastic box? Why is there so much packaging on everything?
From the producers’ standpoint, why not? There’s no penalty for creating extra material, and under the current system, New York City taxpayers will be left to pick up the cost, so why should they care?
There’s a way to change this: a law called Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, makes manufacturers of these materials responsible for part or all of the cost of keeping it out of landfills. Passing an EPR law for product packaging — glass, metal, plastic and paper — at the state level would be absolutely transformative for New York City, and it could bring the city up to $150 million in new revenue every single year. That would be a more than 30% reduction in annual costs to New Yorkers to process trash.
We know this works. New York has a landmark electronic waste EPR law that kept 500 million pounds of electronics out of landfills in just the first six years it existed. The state recently implemented a similar system for paint, and carpet EPR is on the governor’s desk right now.
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These are going to make a world of difference. The idea works in Canada and much of Europe, giving companies a financial reason to reduce waste at the source. Colorado passed EPR just this month. And contrary to what corporate lobbyists might say, studies show that in each of these places, EPR has not even led to an increase in cost to consumers — just a savings to taxpayers.
But New York, once a leader on this, is falling behind. Gov. Hochul, the state Senate and the Assembly all have their own proposals for EPR.
The Senate version covers a larger portion of the waste stream, bringing more resources to the city. That said, both bills work toward a system that establishes a producer’s role in the management of packaging waste, and that’s the important thing. We expect that the Assembly, Senate and governor will negotiate and we hope that they will emerge with a strong, unified bill with clear roles and performance standards. Both houses and the governor must get a good compromise for New Yorkers — for our planet, for our children and for our wallets.
The $150 million in new revenue this program could bring New York City every single year is more than we currently spend on all street cleaning citywide. It would allow for a major reinvestment in services, instead of spending money to clean up someone else’s mess.
New Yorkers have been recycling for decades, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it. We know what goes in the blue bin, what goes in the green bin, and what needs to go to landfill. But for me and the 10,000 other DSNY employees to be able to adequately advance our city’s sustainability and quality of life goals, we need companies to do the same work New Yorkers do every day: be responsible for their waste.
I’m asking our leaders in Albany to help us by making the corporations that produce packaging waste be our partners in bringing New York City back clean. It’s their mess. They should clean it up.
Tisch is commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation, the country’s largest municipal waste management agency.