Wednesday, Feb. 26 was unseasonably warm as we made our way to a public hearing on L.D. 2104, “An Act To Support and Increase the Recycling of Packaging,” at the Maine State House. We’ve reported previously in these pages on various stages of this bill’s development by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. We were there to witness its unveiling before the Joint Standing Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.
In essence, this bill proposes to shift some of the disposal costs of packaging, which currently overburden the waste stream in Maine, from municipalities to producers. If adopted, it would represent a game-changer in Maine’s waste-management landscape.
The poor market for recyclables has caused some towns in Maine to abandon or curtail their programs, while others are considering doing so. Sponsors of the bill see extended producer responsibility for packaging as a way to send a powerful message to Maine municipalities to hang in there with recycling, because help is on its way. The committee was hearing public testimony, in part, to help it decide whether L.D. 2104 is an appropriate legislative response to resuscitate Maine recycling from its current downslide.
Throughout the day, those who spoke in favor of stewardship for packaging outnumbered those in opposition by a margin of 2 to 1. Proponents included non-committee legislators, business owners, nonprofits, municipalities, and many concerned citizens. Their testimony tended to emphasize the need to address the costs that municipalities face for the recycling and disposal of packaging. One supporter framed the issue very simply by asking, “Should consumer brands have any responsibility for what they put on the market?”
Many supporters also emphasized that packaging legislation like this has been adopted and implemented in nearly 50 countries around the globe with the United States a notable outlier among developed nations. One of the more powerful testimonies came from a witness who simply read from a list of all countries – including Lichtenstein and Tunisia – where packaging legislation has already been adopted; it took nearly 2 1/2 minutes of her allotted three-minute slot, after which she urged the committee to add Maine to this list.
The strongest opposition to L.D. 2104 came from trade association lobbyists. Opponents also included Maine-based retail and food service businesses, and others representing the waste-management industry. They argued that program participation expenses would be passed along to consumers, but data from programs elsewhere suggest that, at a fraction of a penny per package, this expense will go unnoticed by consumers.
One common objection was that the term “readily recyclable” as defined in the bill was too imprecise; the more items judged non-recyclable, the more producers would have to pay. Several witnesses pointed to the difficulties their businesses would face in tracking and accounting for the wide variety of packaging used across different stages of the supply chain; again, a task somehow managed in existing programs.
The most compelling opposition came from Maine-based companies that focused narrowly on their own unique challenges, and that expressed confusion as to their eligibility for small-business exemptions – for example, those with revenues of less than $1 million – already written into L.D. 2104. In one case, a small Maine chocolatier, who seemed not to qualify for the exemptions, cited unique non-recyclable packaging requirements imposed by wholesalers around perishability and shelf-life limitations, which led the committee to ponder potential changes to the bill.
Less convincing were arguments made by trade association spokespeople that large corporations who put familiar brands on the market are committed to making improvements to their packaging along time frames of their own choosing. They concluded that this legislation, with its system of industry incentives – like paying lower fees to a stewardship fund for levels of compliance – was therefore unnecessary.
One frequently scripted trope advanced by lobbyists was to emphasize their willingness to “come to the table” in private work sessions with legislators. Committee members seemed to recognize this as a delaying tactic, and showed little patience with the notion that open-ended dialogue with industry was the way forward.
At times, the committee pressed trade reps for concrete alternatives to this legislation, but didn’t seem satisfied with the responses. Committee members asked trade groups why, if their members were able to comply with extended producer responsibility regulations in other countries, they would not be able to do so in Maine. Responses smacked of double talk, with “because we don’t want to” being the essential subtext. On the other hand, committee members expressed greater sympathy for Maine-based businesses that might be adversely affected by broad application of this legislation.
A number of persons from Lincoln County provided written and/or oral testimony at the hearing. Transcripts of the more than 150 submitted statements can be accessed at legislature.maine.gov/committee (choose Environment and Natural Resources from the drop-down menu). A committee work session is scheduled for Thursday, March 5 at 1 p.m., and can be listened to via live audio feed at the same website.
L.D. 2104 is one of the most far-reaching bills on waste management ever taken up by the Maine Legislature. Should it pass in a version similar to its current form, it will engender not only an unambiguous environmental good, but a form of tax relief sorely needed by our municipalities, where expenses for waste-management services continue to skyrocket.
(Mark Ward and Michael Uhl are citizen journalists investigating recycling and waste-management issues in Lincoln County. Mark, of Bristol, is a biologist. Michael, of Walpole, is a writer.)