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Proposal Would Shift Rising Recycling Costs From Maine Communities To Companies, Manufacturers

Taxpayers in communities all across Maine are having to pay more and more to dispose of product packaging like cardboard boxes, plastic containers and food wrapping. 

Some towns have considered abandoning their recycling programs altogether, after the global market for recycled materials collapsed. Now the Legislature is considering a bill that would shift the cost burden to the companies that make the packaging. It’s an approach that’s been embraced by several Canadian provinces and European countries, but Maine could be the first state to adopt it.

The proposal is 21 pages long, but its lead sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Ralph Tucker, of Brunswick, boils it down to this: "It's a bill to save recycling."

Tucker told members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday that Brunswick considered jettisoning its curbside recycling program last year because the costs to keep it going were surpassing the price to put recyclables in the town landfill with other trash.

Other communities face a similar dilemma. It's caused by the global collapse of recycling markets and a recent decision by China — which for 25 years bought and handled half of the world's recyclable waste — to ban the import of most plastics and other materials to their recycling processors.

Democratic State Sen. Cathy Breen says the effects have taken a toll on a community in her district.

"In the town of Gray, a town of just over 8,000 people with a $6.5 million budget, almost 11 percent of the town's resources are spent on recycling," Breen says.

To solve the problem, Breen is joining the state's leading environmental groups to embrace what's known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR.

In practice, the EPR scheme is a bit complicated, but it essentially works by making packaging producers create a third party organization that pays fees to municipalities based on the type of packaging they produce. The idea is to reimburse those municipalities for the costs of disposing of recyclable materials, but Breen says it would also incentivize producers to come up with less wasteful packaging.

"Companies that waste more would pay more," Breen says.

Smaller companies — those with less than $1 million in gross revenues — would be exempt.

The hearing drew dozens of supporters, including Scott Cassel of the Product Stewardship Institute.

"This bill represents what I would consider as the next step for waste management in the United States," Casell says.

Cassel says his organization is working to install EPR laws in several states, including New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut and, now, Maine.

But some in the recycling industry say it’s the wrong fix. Steve Changaris, with the National Waste and Recycling Association, says the current problem is driven by a once-in-a-lifetime lapse in the recycling market – which he says will someday correct itself.

"The markets will come back. We don't know when but they will come back," Changaris said.

And Changaris says while the EPR will create a revenue stream, it will do nothing to restore the market for recyclable materials.

"An EPR structure does not create markets," Changaris says.

Other industry and business groups lined up to oppose the bill, including the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association and the American Forest and Paper Association, which says an EPR program will foist additional regulatory costs on packaging makers in Maine's forest products industry.

Michelle Pelletier runs Performance Foodservice in Augusta, which sells food packaging to restaurants and other businesses in Maine and other states. She says it's not clear from the bill if her company would bear the direct costs of an EPR program, but if it does, "I would be forced to pass these costs onto consumers of my service, the hardworking restaurant owner, colleges and other food servers who are already trying to figure out how to survive increased minimum wage costs and lack of employees."

The bill's supporters say the EPR program will help revive Maine's stagnant recycling rate, which has been about 40 percent since 2013.

Gov. Janet Mills supports the state's goal of a 50 percent recycling rate, and her Department of Environmental Protection also backss the concept of the EPR bill.

But a DEP official testified Wednesday that the current proposal needs revision and the Department introduced an amendment that would overhaul the implementation and administration of the program. That amendment will be taken up by the Environment and Natural Resources Committee sometime next week.

Originally published 4:13 p.m. Feb. 26, 2020

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.