New Jersey lawmakers are taking a serious look at mandating that plastic containers and other packaging sold in the state be made with recycled content, seeing it as a strategy to shore up weak markets.
While the provisions are still being negotiated, state legislators are looking at a wide-ranging bill that could require 35 percent recycled content in rigid plastic containers and 20 percent in retail bags, along with requirements in trash bags, plastic beverage bottles and glass containers.
New Jersey's debate comes a few weeks after California legislators passed a bill requiring up to 50 percent recycled content in plastic beverage bottles. Similarly, Washington state has set a general target of 20 percent recycled materials in plastic packaging by 2025.
In New Jersey, the bill's lead author, state Sen. Bob Smith, said at a lively Sept. 17 hearing that lawmakers hoped to move quickly, and see the legislation as helping address financial challenges facing government recycling programs.
"Plastics are killing us, as a starting point. The recycling industry is costing every taxpayer in this state a gazillion dollars because we're not getting a return on recycling," said Smith, D-Piscataway. "Recycling is an industry that is falling apart. We've got to do everything we can to get it going."
The political prospects for the legislation, known as Senate Bill 2515, are not clear, but Smith heads the Senate's Environment and Energy Committee.
New Jersey's legislature is also considering another big plastics bill authored by Smith. A separate legislative committee Sept. 17 passed a ban on plastic and paper bags as well as some polystyrene foodservice products.
The recycled content bill, introduced in June, has drawn support from recycling companies and environmental groups.
But it's also raised concerns with business groups, including packaging makers, the state's chemical industry and manufacturing associations. They argue that while they support boosting recycling markets, the state should take a deliberate approach because manufacturing supply chains are complex.
"California took years to get their bill done, and it's not nearly as comprehensive as this bill," said Ray Cantor, vice president of government affairs with the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. "There are changes that need to be made to have it be a working, functional bill that's going to achieve the goals that you want to achieve without putting undue burdens on industry."
Recycling business groups, however, urged Smith and New Jersey legislators to move ahead.
The head of the plastics committee at the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which represents recycling companies, testified that they "strongly supported" the legislation to build domestic markets for recyclables after China stopped taking U.S. scrap materials.
"One thing this will do is produce a consistent and continued demand for recycled plastic," said Sunil Bagaria, head of ISRI's plastics committee and president of New Brunswick, N.J., plastics recycler GDB International Inc. "We did not create adequate recycling infrastructure [in the U.S.] because we never paid attention to creating demand."
While it supported the bill, ISRI also said in written comments that it urged tougher provisions, such as higher recycled content requirements for trash bags, which are currently set at 10 percent in the bill, and for containers.
As well, Bagaria said ISRI was worried that the bill had vague provisions for granting waivers, including language allowing packaging makers to get an exemption for "anomalous" market conditions.
"We are afraid that a lot of companies will take advantage of that and shy away from the responsibility of using minimum recycled content," he said. "There are times when recycled plastic will cost more than virgin plastic and that cannot be treated as the reason for the manufacturer to ... exercise the anomalous market conditions [provision]."
But a trade association representing the packaging supply chain said there may not be enough materials to reach the bill's 35 percent requirement for containers, particularly with the quick, two-year implementation period in the legislation as it's currently written.
"We're not sure that the supply is there," said Andrew Hackman, a lobbyist for the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, which urged more study.
"Thirty-five percent might be the right number, but we would just like the [state Department of Environmental Protection] to be able to evaluate and determine if there is that type of supply in the state," he said.
Besides the recycled content requirements, the legislation would also ban expanded polystyrene foam loose-fill packaging, a provision that drew opposition from the EPS sector.
Walter Reiter, deputy director of the EPS Industry Alliance in Crofton, Md., testified that the ban would hurt Edison, N.J.-based EPS packaging maker Storopack Inc., which makes loose-fill packaging peanuts.
"Expanded polystyrene is 100 percent recyclable material," Reiter said, questioning why the EPS peanut ban was in the legislation. "This material fits in so well with the other things the bill is trying to accomplish."
He said the EPS sector has programs that allow consumers to return the packaging peanuts to stores. But Smith asked what the recycling or return rate is for the EPS peanuts, and Reiter said he did not know.
"We're not trying to be hostile to anybody and we don't want to see anybody lose a job, but I have to tell you, you need to come back to us with what's the return rate," Smith said. "I think you're going to find it's a very low percentage."
Smith said lawmakers will review the suggestions at the hearing and come back with additional changes, likely within the next two months.
He and his staff introduced 22 changes to the bill after a July hearing, to respond to concerns, but he also said lawmakers want to move quickly.
"No bill is ever perfect but time is passing," Smith said. "We've got to get this done."
Similarly, the Association of New Jersey Recyclers urged lawmakers to move quickly, suggesting it could help with the loss of export markets for recyclables.
"This is clearly one of the most important pieces of legislation for recycling in New Jersey history and is exactly what we need to address the collapse in international markets," ANJR lobbyist Gary Sondemeyer told the hearing.