ELLSWORTH — As communities around the country struggle to keep up with the increased costs of recycling, some legislators are looking into another option: transferring that cost to the companies that made the packaging in the first place.
State Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) on Jan. 9 will discuss a bill being drafted that is designed to transfer the cost of recycling from towns and cities back to the producers of packaged products. The event, sponsored by the Ellsworth Green Action Team, will be held at 7 p.m. at the Moore Center auditorium.
Governor Janet Mills issued a resolve at the end of May that directed the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to develop legislation that would establish what is known as an “extended producer responsibility (EPR)” law.
The resolution laid out guidelines for a bill, which is in development, including that producers be required to pay up to 80 percent of a product’s disposal costs and encourage better packaging design.
“The goal is to help with the management of all packaging, but that will happen through different types of fee structures for the producers of the packaging,” Grohoski told councilors at a meeting at City Hall on Dec. 16.
“So really small companies that are based here in Maine are below the threshold of what we would consider to pay into a producer responsibility organization.”
It’s been a goal of the DEP to recycle 50 percent of the state’s municipal solid waste since 1989, when recycling programs were first adopted. But that threshold has never been reached, with the most recent figures showing the rate at a little less than 37 percent.
And recycling has only gotten more complicated and expensive in the past few years as countries such as China have cut back on the amount and type of materials they will accept.
With recycling for many materials no longer breaking even or turning a profit, the DEP estimates that disposing of packaging alone cost Maine communities approximately $17.5 million in 2018.
The idea of making companies responsible for disposal of certain items isn’t new. But extending that responsibility to other materials, such as certain plastics and non-corrugated cardboard, has gained traction in recent years as the recycling market for those materials has largely collapsed.
“It’s a tool that has been used in dozens of countries,” Grohoski said.
“It’s been used in Quebec for 15 years now. An example of it is our bottle bill, or things like lead acid batteries. That’s an example of producer responsibility. This particular responsibility is targeting all other packaging.”
Maine was the first state in the nation to pass a law that provided a framework for shifting the cost of discarded packaging to businesses.
The 2009 stewardship law allowed the state to add products to a list requiring manufacturers to pay the cost for disposal. The list so far includes items ranging from house paint to televisions, cell phones, laptops, game consoles, 3D printers and even certain types of mercury-containing lamps.
Solar panels, mattresses and carpets are on the DEP’s shortlist for items that might be good candidates for future stewardship laws.
The existing stewardship program has its problems, DEP staff acknowledge in this year’s “Product Stewardship Report.”
There aren’t enough mechanisms to carry out the laws, and goals need to be more measurable and enforceable, with well-defined consequences for companies that don’t comply.
And many residents aren’t aware of how or where to recycle items covered under the law, or even that they are recyclable.
“Most notably,” staff wrote, “the Product Stewardship framework law does not include meaningful standards for program performance, any mechanism for the Department to require program improvements or improved program performance, nor any reporting or oversight agency review of annual program budgets.”
Money has helped incentivize recycling of certain products. The report notes that more Mainers recycled mercury thermostats when a $5 incentive was implemented.
The bottle bill, according to the report, “consistently achieves the highest return rate, with consumers motivated by the deposit/return payment system.”
But other programs haven’t been as successful. The program to recycle mercury-added lamps, for instance, has “consistently underperformed, with recycling rates never exceeding 13 percent.”
The producer responsibility legislation hadn’t been released as of the Dec. 16 council meeting, said Grohoski, but once it is out, “We are hoping that you might consider it and decide if Ellsworth would be willing to pass a resolution in support of the bill.”