New York state is looking for a new solution to plastic waste New York is the latest, and largest, state to consider charging product-makers to dispose of their packaging. But lawmakers are clashing over how much to involve industry in creating a new system.

We never got good at recycling plastic. Some states are trying a new approach

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Most Americans have been recycling for about three decades now, but relatively little material actually gets repurposed. Some states argue the manufacturers need to step up. A battle in New York state shows what is at stake. NPR's Matthew Schuerman reports.

MATTHEW SCHUERMAN, BYLINE: Plastics are especially tricky. Some types are simply impossible or impractical to recycle.

JUDITH ENCK: The plastics industry is finally admitting that plastics recycling has been an abysmal failure.

SCHUERMAN: That's Judith Enck, a former environmental official in the Obama administration and founder of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics. The Environmental Protection Agency says less than 10% of the plastic produced each year is recovered. The rest is burnt or buried, costing taxpayers billions of dollars a year in collection and processing costs.

ENCK: Very often, companies and big brands use plastics because it's dirt cheap. But it's not cheap for our health, and it's not cheap for the environment.

SCHUERMAN: Enck says that if companies, rather than local governments, were financially responsible for the waste they create, they'd be more conscientious. That's the idea behind something called extended producer responsibility. Beverage companies, food manufacturers and other producers would keep track of how much hard-to-recycle packaging they use, and then they'd cover the cost of disposing of it. The approach began in Europe in the 1990s and was recently adopted by the Maine, Oregon and Colorado legislatures. Democrat Todd Kaminsky has introduced similar legislation in the New York state Senate.

TODD KAMINSKY: We think corporations will produce less virgin materials, because they're charged by the amount they'll put out there, and certainly less eco-unfriendly materials.

SCHUERMAN: To the consumer, the recycling system would pretty much stay the same, but the packaging around consumer products would look different.

KAMINSKY: Packaging doesn't have to be the way we know it. Why, when you buy a box of cereal, is there packaging within other packaging? You know, you reach into the box, and there's a sleeve containing Cheerios or something. But when you get potato chips, it's just in the sleeve.

SCHUERMAN: Some food and beverage companies, and even plastics manufacturers, say they support such a waste reduction strategy. Michael Washburn is a senior policy adviser at The Recycling Partnership, an organization funded by General Mills, Coca-Cola and other corporations.

MICHAEL WASHBURN: Some of them are eager to do it because they want the material back to get into their supply chains.

SCHUERMAN: But there is a catch. Washburn says producers want to be involved in setting fees and targets. And that's the main point of contention as the New York legislative session nears its June 2 end date.

WASHBURN: How could you run a system of this scale and get companies ultimately to change their packaging design, possibly shift to using more sustainable materials? How could we possibly do that without their participation?

SCHUERMAN: Some lawmakers would let manufacturers propose their own reduction targets that would be approved by the state. But others say only the state should set the targets. They want companies to reduce the amount of nonreusable packaging by half in the next 10 years. Judith Enck supports that.

ENCK: We all grew up learning the singsongy reduce, reuse, recycle. Well, we never get to reduce and reuse. Now is the time.

SCHUERMAN: New York's bill could also serve as a model for other states to follow, which is why both sides are fighting hard to influence the outcome.

Matthew Schuerman, NPR News.

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