Leadership is the key to sustainability

The late Mario Cuomo, New York’s three-term governor, often repeated this thought: “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”

For the last month, then, The Enterprise has been stuffed full of poetry. We’ve interviewed candidates in local races in all of the towns we cover — Guilderland, New Scotland, Berne, Knox, Rensselaerville, and Westerlo — and also the county legislative candidates for the same area.

Candidates were eloquent on issues from helping the homeless to helping the addicted. One of the issues on which we heard no poetry, though, was garbage.

The mountain of trash at the Albany landfill on Rapp Road continues to grow — as do tipping fees charged to municipalities — and, despite push backs on its closure date, it is likely to be shut within the decade. Then where will our garbage go?

 Meanwhile, as China is no longer purchasing the world’s refuse, recycling fees have become erratic;  some commodities that municipalities used to get paid for, they now have to pay to dispose of.

We’ve written a length about these problems in the past and local solutions seem limited.

Yes, the town of Bethlehem, as Victoria Plotsky, the incumbent Democratic county legislator running unopposed in District 38, pointed out, has been doing a good job.

Bethlehem has its own composting facility where residents can drop off their yard waste for free. And, the town has offered its residents compost bins at half off retail price to encourage the diversion of more food scraps from entering the waste stream According to the town, as much as two-thirds of Bethlehem’s household trash never makes it into the waste stream. Rather, the solid waste is composted or recycled.

And Knox, like other towns, in May was paying $15 per ton to dispose of its single-stream recyclables; by June, it was $73 per ton; and by August, it was paying over $88. The Knox transfer-station workers came up with a plan to divide the single stream into components, some of which can be sold. So now the town is both saving money and helping the environment.

Other municipalities could benefit by following these approaches.  Leadership on a larger scale would help municipalities even more.

Plotsky, for instance, suggested recycling and solid-waste removal on a county-wide level. Hypothetically, compelling or impelling the roughly 300,000 residents of Albany County to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost could divert 10 times the amount of trash from the waste stream than just what the 33,000 citizens of Bethlehem divert with their program.

It can be done. San Francisco serves as a model. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, San Francisco, in 2002, set a goal of 75-percent diversion by 2010; in 2012, it was diverting 80 percent of its waste.

“Strong political leadership and staff expertise have resulted in innovative policy initiatives,” says the EPA, listing ordinances requiring mandatory recycling and composting, plastic bag ban and checkout bag charge, compostable or recyclable food service ware, a polystyrene foam ban, and state-of-the-art outreach programs covering residences, businesses, schools, and events.

Working for solutions at the statewide level would be even more powerful. We don’t have hope, under the current federal administration, for leadership in this regard although that would be the most powerful of all — recently, funding to modernize the country’s recycling infrastructure was included as part of an infrastructure bill that had no chance of passing.

On the state level, earlier this month, Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy proposed legislation that would require any single-use beverage container manufactured or sold in New York State to contain a minimum of 75-percent recycled content.

This Tuesday, Fahy and Senator Jen Metzger jointly announced a “right to refill” bill to curb plastic pollution; this would require food-service businesses to use customer’s reusable containers if a customer requests it.

This would give individuals a chance to make a difference by bringing their cups for beverages and containers for taking home leftovers. It’s a small step, but a step in the right direction.

Fahy’s plastic-bottles bill calls for phasing in the requirement over the next six years, which is likely to both reduce plastic consumption and create new markets for plastic materials, reducing waste. That will also help municipalities, like the ones we cover, find a market for their discarded plastics so it doesn’t end up, as one candidate predicted it will, as roadside litter or buried in backyards, or burned.

While we support Fahy’s bill, we believe the state should go further. California, in 2016, was the first state to ban single-use plastic bags. New York followed suit in 2019. That ban is to go into effect in March.

New Yorkers use an estimated 23 billion single-use plastic bags every year with half of them ending up in landfills or as litter. When the ban goes into effect, stores will be forbidden to give their customers single-use plastic bags. At the same time, counties will be allowed to opt in to a 5-cent fee on paper bags. Funds from those fees are to go to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund as well to another fund that would purchase reusable bags for consumers.

If the state can ban plastic bags, why can’t it ban plastic bottles? People for generations carried canteens or used public water fountains when they were thirsty. There is no human need to have water in plastic bottles.

As we’ve written here before, bottled water is 3,000 percent more expensive than tap water and isn’t any purer or healthier, according to a Harvard study, and more than 17 million barrels of oil are required to produce enough plastic water bottles to meet America’s annual demand. At the same time, United States landfills have more than two million tons of thrown-out water bottles, each of which takes 1,000 years to decompose.

Think of that next time you reach to buy a plastic water bottle. Do you want to leave behind refuse that will pollute for 1,000 years?

Let us, instead, work collectively to leave a legacy of health for our planet and for its inhabitants — humans, animals, and plants alike. Such concerns are bigger than politics and more permanent than elections.

We need to work together as Democrats and Republicans — as members of any party or of no party — to curb pollution before it’s too late.

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