We’ve written previously that extended producer responsibility for packaging is being considered by the Maine Legislature. Such a measure would hold producers accountable for some of the costs incurred by municipalities for the recycling or disposal of packaging materials. An extended producer responsibility program would be implemented and managed by a nongovernmental stewardship organization.
Draft legislation on extended producer responsibility, prepared by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, has now been presented to the Joint Standing Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources. Recently, experts were called upon to brief the committee on existing extended producer responsibility programs in other jurisdictions. Presentations included two consultants who have worked with extended producer responsibility programs in other countries, and two representatives of Eco Enterprises Quebec, the stewardship organization that manages the extended producer responsibility program in that Canadian province.
We listened to an audio feed of their presentations, and to subsequent questions posed by our legislators. What follows is a summary of what we took away as the key elements of the briefing.
While we previously recognized that extended producer responsibility was a promising innovation to address the packaging glut, we had nevertheless been mystified by the challenges of managing such a complex system. The scope of the experts’ experience with existing programs renewed our confidence that implementing such a system in Maine is eminently achievable.
Although never before attempted in the U.S., a growing number of countries around the world have successful extended producer responsibility programs in place, dating in Europe from as early as the 1990s. Since 2000, the concept has been adopted by countries on every continent except Antarctica. Some of the most populous countries on the planet, like China, India, and Brazil, are in the process of creating extended producer responsibility for packaging.
Given the long track record and expanding breadth of such programs abroad, many of the bugs have already been worked out. We take heart, therefore, that one potential argument for postponing adoption of such a system in the U.S. is eliminated by not having to reinvent the wheel.
The key potential gain of an extended producer responsibility program would be to steer costs for disposal and recycling of packaging material from municipalities (taxpayers) to producers. But where successful programs are already in place, more far-reaching benefits are seen as well.
According to Victor Bell, consultant for Lorax EPI Compliance, extended producer responsibility for packaging actually subsidizes recycling markets by leveling the costs of recyclables against the costs of virgin materials (a key factor that currently impedes domestic plastics recycling). Extended producer responsibility can help buffer the volatile recycling marketplace that habitually plagues our municipalities.
The stewardship organization, unlike municipalities, has tools that it can use to respond to market fluctuations by adjusting producer levies and incentives; producers can pay more or less depending on market forces and on the recyclability of their packaging. This liberates municipalities to focus on recycling as a service to their citizens rather than as a potential source of revenue.
Moreover, extended producer responsibility for packaging can be seen not just as a shift in funding, but as a way to improve recovery systems. Involving producers in an extended producer responsibility program requires that they become attentive to the full life cycle of their packaging, and accept accountability for the manufacturing materials they choose. In this way, extended producer responsibility provides system integration from a package’s production to its recovery or disposal.
This cradle-to-grave perspective may cause producers to begin to see recycling as a potential part of the supply chain. Extended producer responsibility can incentivize producers who manufacture packaging from recycled content, and help Maine finally achieve our targeted, but heretofore elusive, 50% recycling goal.
According to Bell, countries with extended producer responsibility have spurred greater participation in recycling programs and advancements in technology at recovery facilities, owing to the fact that stewardship organizations overseeing such programs are responsible for investing in infrastructure for the future.
Perhaps the greatest ongoing challenge faced by recycling programs is public education. Poor education leads to “wish-cycling” where citizens deposit unacceptable items in recycling bins in the hope that someone farther down the line will remove them if they don’t belong. This results in considerable contamination in the processing chain. Local municipalities are typically too strapped to allocate taxpayer funds to ongoing education campaigns. In an extended producer responsibility system, the stewardship organization provides the resources for ongoing education using fees assessed on producers of non-recyclable packaging.
In order to make an extended producer responsibility program work, there must be a close accounting of materials produced and recycled. Such precise record-keeping offers the potential for enhanced traceability and transparency – following materials, whether recyclable or not, from distribution, to collection, to processing in recovery facilities, to their ultimate destinations for repurposing or disposal. This is one of the weakest links in our current system.
Would extended producer responsibility for packaging in Maine solve all of the challenges in the recycling marketplace? Certainly not. But after the briefing, we came away with a much clearer picture of how such a system could assist municipalities that face the conflicting desires of citizens who want to recycle, and a marketplace that can cyclically make it economically unappealing to do so.
Stay tuned for more details on the draft legislation as it advances. It will likely receive revisions before being assigned an official bill number. The Environment and Natural Resources Committee will then schedule a public hearing sometime this session. We plan to attend the hearing and will report on it.
(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.)