Lincoln County residents who do their part to recycle can’t have helped but notice that a significant amount of non-recyclable household trash these days comes from single-use packaging.
Several factors have recently exacerbated the situation. Our local transfer stations largely ceased to accept most plastics for recycling in 2018, when the market for these materials crashed as result of a Chinese import policy change. Meanwhile, there has been a proliferation of non-recyclable flexible packaging put on the market by producers — for example, tuna, which used to always come in a recyclable can, is now routinely sold in multi-laminate pouches that cannot be recycled. Finally, the pandemic has, at least temporarily, halted attempts to limit single-use plastic bags and polystyrene food containers.
Who pays for materials that can’t be recycled? We all do. As taxpayers, we collectively share the costs of waste disposal in each of our respective municipalities. The question is, “Should producers of packaging have any responsibility for what they put on the market?”
The concept is known as “extended producer responsibility.” It represents a policy approach in which producers are required to fund and manage the end of life for items they put on the market. In Maine, producers are already required to share the costs of end-of-life stewardship for certain toxic items such as mercury thermostats, paint, and electronic products. Should there be a similar requirement in place for packaging?
That proposal is once again before the Maine Legislature. Extended producer responsibility programs for packaging have been adopted in more than 50 countries, including Canada, Europe, and numerous developing countries, but never before in the United States. If Maine were to implement such a system, it would be the first state to do so.
In the last session, Maine came closer than any other state has so far to taking that step. In March 2020, the Joint Standing Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources voted “ought to pass” on “An Act To Support and Increase the Recycling of Packaging” and sent the bill to the full Legislature. Then the pandemic shut down the Legislature and the bill died.
Now the effort is being taken up anew in “An Act To Support and Improve Municipal Recycling Programs and Save Taxpayer Money,” sponsored by Rep. Nicole Grohoski, of Ellsworth. Although the bill has not yet been printed or given an official L.D. number, we have seen a draft and can confirm that it is modeled on last year’s effort.
Like its predecessor, Grohoski’s bill shifts some of the cost of handling and disposal of post-consumer packaging materials from municipalities to producers. The governance structure is similar to that put forward last year, with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection soliciting proposals and then selecting a stewardship organization to oversee the program by collecting funds from producers, reimbursing municipalities and transfer stations, and funding improvements to recycling education and infrastructure.
Maine municipalities could still choose to opt out of participation in the program. Participating municipalities must offer a recycling program and adhere to reporting requirements for the amounts of material handled and recycled.
We find several improvements on last year’s bill in Grohoski’s update. It streamlines rule-making to manage the program, which would help get it up and running relatively quickly without the need for additional legislative action. It also clearly lays out a framework of financial incentives for producers to reduce their costs by, among other things, employing less packaging, using recycled content, or lowering toxicity.
Perhaps most importantly when considering its prospects for passage, Grohoski’s bill is more generous in its exemptions for small Maine businesses by excluding those with less than $2 million in gross annual revenue or with fewer than 100 full-time, year-round employees.
In what may prove to be the most interesting twist this year on the extended producer responsibility for packaging front, a competing bill, “An Act To Enact the Packaging Recovery and Recycling Financing Act,” sponsored by Sen. Jim Dill, of Penobscot, is also being offered. We haven’t seen a draft, but it has the backing of the packaging industry group AMERIPEN, which vociferously opposed last year’s legislation.
AMERIPEN, which formed 10 years ago as the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, has traditionally opposed producer funding of recycling. But Dan Felton, executive director of AMERIPEN, indicated in a January article in Resource Recycling that his organization’s policy position on extended producer responsibility for packaging has shifted from where it was a year ago: “I would not say wholeheartedly we’re in support … but our policy will support these proposals, particularly at the state level, if they meet certain requirements.”
AMERIPEN is not the only industry trade association to have signaled new receptivity to extended producer responsibility for paper and packaging. Both the American Chemistry Council and the Flexible Packaging Association have recently partnered with nonprofits and softened their positions as well. Whether the shift among trade associations represents an awakening to an idea whose time has come, or a maneuver to water down or block state efforts, only time will tell. According to Yinka Bode-George, environmental health manager for the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, at least nine bills on the subject are being advanced in state legislatures around the country this year.
We’ll be closely following the progress of the effort in Maine to enact this legislation, and will keep you apprised of the process and its outcome.
(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.)