On Jan. 18, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill establishing postconsumer recycled content [PCR] requirements for rigid plastic containers; glass containers; paper and plastic carryout bags; and plastic garbage bags. The bill prohibits the sale of polystyrene loose fill packaging. The bill passed the state General Assembly by a vote of 48-26-3 and the state Senate voted 22-15 on Jan. 10.
ISRI’s New Jersey Chapter and Plastics Division, represented by Sunil Bagaria, president of GDB International and Plastics Division Chair, and Eadaoin Quinn, director of business development and procurement at EFS‑plastics and Plastics Division Secretary, worked with state Sen. Bob Smith, chair of the Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to ensure the bill’s recycled-content requirements reflected the concerns of the recycling industry.
It was Bagaria’s first time closely shaping the direction of a recycling bill in his state. He was grateful for support from Danielle Waterfield, ISRI’s chief policy officer, and Justin Short, ISRI’s manager of government relations. State Sen. Andrew Zwicker, a former chair of the General Assembly’s Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, helped Bagaria navigate the politics of the issue. “I’m so proud and happy,” Bagaria says. “I felt that what we were doing was making a change that could be a seismic shift in the state. The government mandating recycled content is huge.”
Bagaria believes the law will help increase demand for recycled plastics regardless of how their prices compare to virgin plastics. People typically turn to recycled plastics when their prices are lower than virgin plastics. “Once recycled plastics are mandated in the law, then irrespective of the price of virgin materials, manufactures and brand owners will turn to recycled plastics,” he says. “The bill would ensure consistent demand, which is a big deal for the recycling industry. We hope the law will lead to new investments, new infrastructure, and new capacity.”
Quinn was grateful that ISRI brought the bill to her attention, as she and her company pushed for this type of measure for years. “As a recycler, mandated [PCR] is very important for driving demand for the products we’re making,” she says. “ISRI gave us the opportunity to speak directly to lawmakers, answer their questions, and work to convince them that this would really help plastics recyclers, material recovery facilities, and the municipalities they serve.”
The current PCR content minimums in the law are:
- Rigid plastic containers: 10% after 2 years; increasing 10% every 3 years until reaching 50%;
- Plastic beverage containers: 15% after 2 years; increasing by 5% every 3 years until 50%, maximum 30% for “hot fill” containers;
- Glass containers: 35% after 2 years, or 25% if the recycled content is certified as at least 50% mixed color cullet;
- Paper carryout bags: 40% after 2 years, or 20% for 8 pound or smaller bags;
- Plastic carryout bags: 20% after 2 years; 40% after 5 years;
- Plastic trash bags 0.70 mils to less than 0.80 mils thick: 5% after 2 years; 10% after 5 years;
- Plastic trash bags 0.80 mils to less than 1 mil thick: 10% after 2 years; 20% after 5 years; and
- Plastic trash bags 1 mil or thicker: 20% after 2 years; 40% after 5 years.
The bill also requires incentives, to the extent that funds are made available, for manufacturers, recyclers, and retailers to collect and reuse polyethylene film.
When considering how to improve recycling, Quinn says lawmakers often think accepting more materials in recycling bins is the right move. While that policy brings more materials to recyclers, it doesn’t fully support the recycling process. “We receive more materials without creating an increased demand to sell the materials,” she explains. “What we need to make the system sustainable is a commitment for [PCR] material to be used again in these types of containers.”
Creating demand for more PCR content would encourage recyclers to seek out more material, which in turn would increase materials collection, Quinn says. “In terms of legislation, we think it’s more important to focus on recycled content requirements because that will drive the whole system, and that in turn increases recycling rates,” she says.
Bagaria and Quinn advocated for an initial exemption for food-grade containers. According to Quinn, the initial exemption allows lawmakers to set recycling content goals that are more realistic and likely to succeed. While there’s a large supply of some rigid plastics that can be used in food-grade applications, like water bottles, there’s much less for food-grade containers made from polypropylene, like yogurt cups.
“There’s so many applications we know can use postconsumer resin right away,” Quinn says. “There’s no reason why those containers should have 100% virgin material, so why not start with things we know are being overlooked and then build toward something more ambitious in the future?”
While it’s always important for recyclers to engage with policymakers, it was even more essential for this bill. “There’s no way lawmakers will know [innately] what specific items and percentage levels are appropriate until they’re connected with the right people in the recycling industry,” Quinn says. “Through the conversations we had with legislators and their staff, I think we were able to influence the bill so it’s more in line with what’s happening on the ground. I think it’s going to make for a strong law that will lead to increased sales for recyclers like EFS and GDB—that’s really important and we’re really grateful for ISRI’s help on that.”
Waterfield says the bill’s passage reflects New Jersey’s strong commitment to increase the use of recycled content in packaging materials and develop a sustainable program with quantifiable metrics and realistic goals. “This will help increase stakeholder commitment throughout the plastics supply chain to ensure plastics are responsibly manufactured, collected, and recycled into new products,” she says. “ISRI is excited about the opportunity for plastics recycling the passage presents for the state of New Jersey, and we stand ready to provide essential third-party advice and technical expertise in plastics recycling and manufacturing.”
Featured image courtesy of Niagara, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons. Caption: Panorama of the north facade of the New Jersey State House on State Street in Trenton, New Jersey.
Body image courtesy of Sunil Bagaria. Caption: From left to right: New Jersey State Sen. Bob Smith with Sunil Bagaria, ISRI Plastics Division Chair and President of GDB International. The photo was taken in 2020 when Bagaria went to the New Jersey State Senate to deliver his testimony.