Chemical Industry Steps Up Lobbying as New York Weighs Major Waste Bill

Trade groups are spending big to fight legislation that would restrict single-use packaging and bar their preferred “chemical recycling” technologies.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   June 8, 2023
A new bill would shift the responsibility of reducing waste from consumers and municipalities to corporations. | Leonard Lin/Flickr

It’s been on New York’s agenda for well over a decade. And, once again, it’s coming down to a last-minute battle in the final days of the legislative session.

The proposal is to slash the amount of garbage New Yorkers send to landfills by targeting one of the most common kinds of waste — packaging — at the source. A bill sponsored by Senator Pete Harckham and Assemblymember Deborah Glick would shift the responsibility of dealing with all that packaging from consumers and municipalities to the companies that distribute it. And those companies are pushing back hard.

Industry groups ranging from waste haulers and forestry groups to booze companies to the Farm Bureau, the Restaurant Association, Kraft Foods, and ExxonMobil have turned their lobbying power on the bill. But some of the most concerted opposition has come from the chemical industry, which has stepped up its lobbying efforts in New York over the last two years as debates over waste have come to a head.

Chemical industry lobbyists — including two former state senators — have been hard at work making their case to legislators and the governor, according to filings, interviews, and previously unreleased emails obtained by New York Focus. The correspondence, obtained through a public records request, shows that Governor Kathy Hochul’s staff met with chemical giant Eastman and its lobbyists at least four times in one year, and that they discussed legislative language that could advance technologies the company is developing.

So far, the industry’s priorities haven’t made it into law. But chemical companies may score a win this week if lawmakers drop the packaging waste bill before the legislative session ends, as many expect.

‘Chemical recycling’ battle

The American Chemistry Council, the chief trade group for the US chemical industry and a leading opponent of the packaging bill, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on high-powered lobbyists. Among their ranks are Todd Kaminsky, the former Senate environment committee chair who abruptly resigned last year to take a job at the firm Greenberg Traurig, and Craig Johnson, another former state senator. Johnson, who lost his seat in 2010, was a backer of the Republican-allied Independent Democratic Conference and now runs his own boutique lobbying firm, Long Point Advisors.

The Chemistry Council is paying Greenberg Traurig and Johnson’s firm $60,000 each to lobby on its behalf for the duration of the legislative session, filings show. It has also hired the MirRam Group and the one-man shop JEM Associates at annual rates of $165,000 and $35,000, respectively. And the trade group has three of its own in-house lobbyists in Albany, adding up to nine lobbyists and at least $200,000 in spending so far this year.

In a joint memo issued this week with more than 75 other companies and organizations, the Chemistry Council wrote that the pending waste bill’s definitions are “overly restrictive” and will stifle nascent recycling technologies. That’s a reference to “chemical recycling,” a controversial suite of technologies that use high heat or other processes to break down scrap plastics into their original molecules and transform them into new plastics.

New chemical recycling facilities around the country “are expected to recycle up to 9 billion pounds of material per year,” and New York would close itself off from this market if it adopts the current bill, the industry memo says.

Environmentalists broadly oppose chemical recycling because of the air pollution and often hazardous waste it creates. Harckham and Glick’s far-reaching bill would prohibit the practice, as well as ban certain toxic substances from packaging. It would also require companies to reduce total packaging by 30 percent within a decade, and gradually increase the amount of recycled material in their packaging, along with a host of other measures.

The bill’s producer-pays approach is known as “extended producer responsibility” (EPR), and New York already applies it to products including prescription drugs, electronic waste, and, now, carpets. But packaging is a much bigger fish. As of 2018, packaging accounted for close to a third of the waste stream nationwide, federal data show. About half of that got recycled — mainly cardboard. Plastic, the second largest category, mostly went to landfills, where it will sit for hundreds of years.

Several states have recently adopted EPR as a solution, but the flurry of bills has been a long time coming. In New York, officials recommended EPR legislation at least as early as 2010, when they issued a wide-ranging plan to reduce solid waste. But their recommendations were mostly ignored, and the state’s trash problem has only grown. Single-use packaging is a major culprit, and is the main target of the EPR bill now pending in the legislature.

In its broad strokes, EPR has achieved near-consensus among state leaders. Report after report has described it as critical to meeting a wide range of environmental goals, including combating climate change, and Governor Kathy Hochul has twice floated versions of it in her budget proposals. But the push has so far been stymied by disagreements over key details, and many fear the same will happen this year.

“This is the white whale,” said Judith Enck, president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics and former regional administrator at the US Environmental Protection Agency. “This is our best shot at significantly reducing plastic pollution.”

New York’s environmental movement — often split over waste issues — has in recent weeks formed a broad front behind the EPR bill, in a Hail Mary to get it passed this year. Joining that coalition are local and county governments, including New York City’s, which estimate that the bill will save them tens of millions of dollars in waste management costs every year.

Business leaders have retorted that the bill’s packaging reduction mandates will be costly and unworkable, and that its reuse requirements could even backfire, creating more packaging. The AFL-CIO has joined industry groups in opposing the bill.

A Chemistry Council spokesperson said that the group supports “well-crafted EPR legislation” that would advance a “circular economy,” but asserted that “this 11th-hour proposal is far from a well-crafted EPR bill.”

Amid the tumult, the bill has yet to win over Senate or Assembly leaders. Its sponsors introduced significant changes just last week and it is now too late to amend it again before the end of session, meaning the two houses must either take it or leave it as it is.

“There’s a brand new amendment,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told Spectrum News on Tuesday. “We’ll see what we can do with it.”

A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to a request to comment.

Lobbying Hochul Early and Often

Hochul’s office declined to comment on the bill, saying only that she would “review all legislation that passes both houses of the legislature.”

Emails obtained by New York Focus, however, show that Hochul’s office has been more forthcoming discussing bills with lobbyists, even when the legislative process is ostensibly out of her hands.

Last May, when a new EPR bill was introduced in the Assembly, a lobbyist for the chemical giant Eastman promptly contacted Hochul’s assistant secretary for the environment, Ashley Dougherty.

“Hey- wanted to pass along some specific concerns Eastman has,” wrote James Curran, a lobbyist with Brown & Weinraub, in an early-morning email on May 9. (Eastman paid Brown & Weinraub $110,000 last year to lobby on its behalf, according to filings.) The company’s top concern: that the bill would “kill” chemical recycling.

“Very helpful,” Dougherty replied two minutes later.

The exchange is one of very few among the more than two-dozen emails obtained by New York Focus where the governor’s staff made any comments in writing. But staffers scheduled at least four virtual meetings with Eastman and its lobbyists in the span of a year, the emails show.

In February 2022, as Hochul was pushing an EPR measure in the budget, the company offered Hochul’s office a definition of recycling that would allow for its chemical processes.

Over the summer and fall, after the legislature passed a carpet EPR bill that expressly banned chemical recycling, Eastman pitched amendments to the governor that would strip out prohibitions on specific high-heat technologies it uses. Hochul ultimately sought to make such an amendment to the bill before signing it, but its sponsors rebuffed the demand after tense negotiations, and the bill was signed more or less intact just days before the New Year.

A spokesperson for the governor said Hochul is in regular contact with all stakeholders throughout the legislative process, and has met with Beyond Plastics, for example, at least five times since the beginning of 2022.

Eastman and Curran did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Tensions Linger Among Environmentalists

Enck, of Beyond Plastics, said industry lobbying has played a role in shaping debates over the waste bill. But at this point, she said, “Our biggest enemy is the clock.”

“There’s broad support for this, but we may run out of time,” she told New York Focus on Tuesday.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment and a leading proponent of the EPR bill, shares the concern. But she also voiced frustration over debates between environmental groups and the two branches of the legislature that put the bill off until the last minute.

Hochul and the Senate both included versions of EPR in their budget proposals, but industry groups and some environmentalists, including Enck, argued that the legislation was too important and complex to be negotiated in the budget. The Assembly agreed, and the bill got shelved — until now.

“That was absolutely foolish,” Esposito said. “And now, maybe tragic that we’ve lost another year, if we don’t get it.”

“This bill should have been done in the budget,” Esposito added. “Now we’re pounding the pavement in the last 48 hours of session to see if we can get the bill done, and it’s looking bleak.”

Correction, June 8: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Craig Johnson was a member of the Independent Democratic Conference. Johnson worked closely with IDC members, but the group was formed after he left office. 

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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