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Business Groups Push Back On Bill That Would Shift Costs Of Disposing Packaging Materials

Troy R. Bennett
Bangor Daily News

Recycling rates in Maine and other states have dropped in recent years, while costs to municipalities and local taxpayers have gone up.

A proposal before the Maine Legislature aims to change that by charging manufacturers of packaging fees for packaging materials and sending a portion of that revenue to municipalities to finance waste disposal and recycling programs. Business groups say it's a bad idea and argue that the bill will lead to higher costs of products and groceries.

Ever since China decided several years ago to stop taking most recyclable material from the U.S., municipalities have been forced to maintain increasingly expensive recycling programs, or simply dispose of waste at the local landfill.

At the same time, use of single-use plastic containers has skyrocketed. That's why some have proposed slapping a fee on packaging.

"It is the right problem, but it's the wrong solution," says Maine State Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors.

Connors was among those speaking out against what's known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR, during a press event at the state house on Tuesday.

EPR attempts to shift the cost of disposing packaging materials from municipalities and property taxpayers to packaging producers.

The EPR bill before the Maine Legislature creates a stewardship program that would charge large producers of food and other packaged goods for the cost of disposing packaging material.

Supporters like co-sponsor Sen. Rick Bennett, a Republican from Oxford, say the EPR concept will not only put the disposal cost burden on product manufacturers, it will also move them away from using non-recycling containers for food and other goods.

"There will be a disincentive [to use packaging], but in the short run at least we're getting the people who responsible for it to pay for it - some of the biggest corporations in the world - rather than the municipal property taxpayer," Bennett says.

But Connors and other opponents say Maine should not try to singlehandedly try to reset the recycling market with a landmark EPR law.

"Putting the financial responsibility on the manufacturers, the producer, does not fix the problem. It merely places us as the first state in the U.S. to do such a thing," Connors says.

Connors is right that Maine could be the first state to establish an EPR program, although at least nine others are considering similar bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The concept has also been adopted by European countries, as well as several Canadian provinces.

But the lack of domestic trial has made the legislative debate over the Maine bill somewhat abstract, leading opponents like Christine Cummings, of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, to claim that producer fees will likely just get passed on to consumers.

"These producers will find it most challenging to reduce their fees and will be handcuffed, most certainly equating to price increases," Cummings says.

On Tuesday the chamber and Curtis Picard of the Retail Association of Maine highlighted a study from York University in Ontario to back their case that charging producers for packaging will increase the cost of goods.

"Both the York University study and the polling information help show what we've been saying all along. L.D. 1541 is a complex and costly new tax," Picard says.

"These opponents of my legislation are literally talking about a garbage study," says Democratic state Rep. Nicole Grohoski, of Ellsworth, who is the lead sponsor of the EPR bill. "But I'm here to talk about the garbage that municipalities are managing through taxpayer dollars and putting the costs that taxpayers are paying back on the people who are causing the problem."

Grohoski says the York University study is misleading because it misrepresents key components of the Maine bill.

Sara Nichols, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says the study also relies on bad math.

Roughly one-third of the packaging products used in the study are not included in the Maine EPR proposal. It also used data from Ontario to assume that Maine manages four times as much packaging as that shown in state Department of Environmental Protection data.

"Then it inflates the costs of managing that packaging by six. Then they get a total outrageous cost for a program and that somehow translates to three times that amount in increased costs for groceries. It is incredible how bad this study is," Nichols says.

Grohoski, the bill's sponsor, also notes that a different study by Michigan-based Resource Recycling Systems found no significant correlation in product prices between Canadian provinces that use EPR and those that don't.

Grohoski says the finding makes sense based on Maine's experience with its bottle deposit law.

"We don't pay more for soda in Maine than New Hampshire pays," Grohoski says.

Nevertheless, opponents of the EPR bill say its ill-timed given the widespread hopes for a speedy post-pandemic recovery.

Supporters have attempted to enhance its chances for passage by claiming it will increase lagging recycling rates, save taxpayers money and by exempting small businesses with less than $5 million in gross revenue from the program.

The proposal could be face votes in the House and Senate this week.