Challenges that government will always face, in new shapes and sizes
Serious adverse health effects from the proliferation of PFAS chemicals have alarmed the public and government officials, who can’t seem to effectively respond to a fairly obvious health hazard. With decades of regulatory experience to draw upon, those scenarios should be fantasy in today’s sophisticated society, but sometimes history just repeats itself.
Where PFAS is found in plastic consumer goods, for example, where the federal government continues to debate a means for effective regulation of PFAS substances, public opinion continues to frown on the easy availability of plastic in every day life, even in drinking straws, and industry feels pressure to remove it from the waste stream altogether. Eliminating plastic products from the stream of commerce, before they become waste, may ultimately be the most effective alternative, but where it places an entire industry in jeopardy, its likelihood seems low.
Until then, what’s the best response? Or, more accurately for county and local government officials in New Jersey, how best to respond to constituents who ask: “what are you going to do about it, right now?” What, indeed. Clean it up? Well, of course. Ships are at work cleaning it up, and promoting their efforts through public involvement, like those commissioned by enterprising young surfers who have raised millions to pay fisherman to clean plastic from the same ocean that provides their livelihood. Or eliminate plastic pollution before it floats out to the ocean (Inner Harbor Garbage Wheel). Those are innovative responses, for sure, but State, county, and local governments can hardly be expected to forever fund that work. Where private funds move away from those initiatives, the field of options will grow ever smaller.
For government, the options are always limited, and there is simply no time for delay. How about encouraging greater plastic recycling? In addition to the laws from our own government, all forms of solid waste recycling and disposal are ruled by the laws of supply and demand, and like other noble government initiatives, they require public subsidies to start and, in many cases, to survive over time. Overcoming the economic and technical challenges of plastics recycling, which started with incentives to increase the use of recyclable plastic materials, are forever daunting. Thirty years ago, for example, State government in New Jersey confronted that challenge head-on, in ways seemingly unimaginable in today’s regulatory climate, with an innovative new statewide law that mandated solid waste recycling. Decades later, and perhaps surprisingly, the public has largely embraced waste recycling in its daily lifestyle, and industry has responded favorably on the supply end, with the increased use of recyclable plastic, but the continued success of waste recycling, as a function of supply and demand, remains in jeopardy. China’s decision, as recently as 2018, to ban the import of impure recyclables threw world markets into turmoil. American waste, perhaps surprisingly to the general public, is now heavily screened and frequently rejected before it can be shipped overseas, discouraging many municipalities from continuing with their recycling efforts. Where the average consumer knows little and cares less about how plastics are actually recycled once they leave the curb, recent developments will no doubt draw the attention of taxpayers statewide, when recycling simply becomes unaffordable.
For county and local governments in New Jersey, adopting bans on the use of plastic shopping bags is noble, but does nothing to solve the existing recycling and disposal dilemma. Similarly, shutting down their recycling programs in the face of economic turmoil is simply not an option for municipalities. In fact, it’s illegal. As the Association of New Jersey Recyclers points out, [FOOTNOTE: The Association of New Jersey Recyclers (ANJR) is a not-for-profit, 501(c) (3), nonpartisan network that was incorporated in 1984. ANJR’s members consist of individuals and organizations from both the public and private sectors, governmental entities, the recycling industry, and the business community].
“Questions have been raised as to whether a town would be permitted to stop recycling a designated recyclable material if the cost of recycling that material was more than the cost to transport and dispose of that material as solid waste. The short answer is no.
“There was language in the original Recycling Act in the definition of “Market(s)” that pinned the cost of marketing of designated recyclables to the cost of disposal as solid waste. If the cost of recycling went above the cost of disposal, you could dispose of the material as solid waste. However, the 1993 amendments removed the cost aspect, so unless there is another amendment to the Act, one has to recycle, no matter the cost.” [ANJR]
DEP’s financial incentives program for municipalities, in the form of “tonnage grants”, only reimburses municipalities on the basis of how much material they recycle. So that eliminating local recycling collection programs, and their eligibility for tonnage grant subsidies, only worsens the problem for municipalities, from a financial standpoint. In the short term, rearranging local spending priorities and, as a last resort, raising property taxes to cover the increased costs of waste recycling seems unavoidable.
Perhaps the State’s decision to mandate waste recycling, in the face of global market turmoil, amounts to an unfunded mandate. County governments, for example, are obligated to administer the Solid Waste Management Act through the adoption and enforcement of district (i.e., county-based) solid waste management plans. And waste recycling is a critical component of any plan. Where the markets for handling recyclables disappear, should counties and municipalities turn back to State government for the funds to manage their mandatory collection programs? A State government, that is, which suffers from its own, seemingly annual fiscal crisis, and the never-ending pressure to lessen the financial burden of governing on municipalities and local school districts. And if State government refuses to fund recycling programs, are county and local governments improperly left with the bill, and the prospect of raising taxes yet again?