TRENTON —  A bill introduced in Trenton and sponsored by state Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, is pushing for stronger plastic packaging in what is called “Extended Producer Responsibility” or EPR.

But what exactly does this mean?

It all comes down to recycling, said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
New Jersey residents try to recycle as many products that come through the household as possible, he said.

But recycling rates are at 35%, below the 50% state goal.

This bill is designed for the companies that make plastic products. Overall, it’s an effort to work to create more sustainability with products that are created, O’Malley said.

The goal is to make sure that large companies use less packaging materials, especially single-use plastic products, and that the packaging they do use is recyclable, leading to a cleaner environment. The first rule of recycling is to reduce, he added.

New Jersey is not the first state to introduce EPR. It actually exists on every continent, O’Malley said. But the U.S. has been playing catch-up with states moving forward with these programs. Maine and Oregon passed EPR-type laws last year, and Colorado just implemented one this month.

Currently, there is legislation being considered in other states such as New York, California, Maryland, and Washington.

“We’re still awash in plastics. Everyone in the state is doing what they need to by bringing reusable bags to grocery stores, now. Every day the single-use plastic bag ban is in effect, which means 12 million single-use plastic bags aren’t being used, aren’t being produced, or ending up at the shore or in our neighborhoods,” O’Malley said.

Despite our efforts, the U.S. is still producing a massive amount of plastic. So much, said O’Malley, that there are estimates that in the next 30 years, there could be more plastics than fish in our oceans, he said.

Just take a look at New Jersey oceans, O’Malley said. During their annual beach sweeps, Clean Ocean Action finds that 80% of the garbage they pick up is single-use plastic materials.

Residents have been pitching in by bringing reusable bags into stores and ditching the single-use bags. But now the next logical step is to take a look at recycling overall, he said.

The bill would make sure companies produce fewer single-use products and work to pay to recycle the products that they do create.

O’Malley said more than 90% of single-use plastics are not being recycled in the state. It used to be that our recycling would be sent to China but that has stopped because our recycling stream is not good enough.

“This has really been a wake-up call that there is no trash fairy. What we put out on the curb doesn’t just disappear. We need everyone to do their part, especially the companies that are producing single-use products,” O’Malley said.

The reality is, that this bill is less on small businesses, but rather on large companies that a producing single-use plastics. Some small businesses put out their trash every night, he said. There is a big expense for trash. That is why there is recycling. Recycling creates a separate market and reduces the amount of money that local governments need to pay to haul off this trash.

If anything, there is a hidden cost for small businesses and the public and the amount of money it takes to get rid of all the single-use waste, he said.

While the bill has been introduced in Trenton, O’Malley expects it to move slowly. He said it is a big issue requiring a lot of debate and a lot of dialogue.

But if and when it does pass, it won’t impact big companies overnight. They will have plenty of time to come up with a plan and change what they do when it comes to packaging and waste.

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at jennifer.ursillo@townsquaremedia.com

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