ELLSWORTH — If you’re anything like most Americans, this scenario will probably sound familiar: a large Amazon box is delivered to your doorstep. You open it to reveal a smaller box, stuffed to the brim with bubble wrap, and finally, another box, wrapped in brown paper, and there it is! The bottle of shampoo you ordered, wrapped in a sheath of plastic.
“The producer is part of the process,” state Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) told the several dozen residents who had ventured out to the Moore Community Center on a chilly evening Jan. 9. Grohoski was giving a presentation on the concept of “extended producer responsibility.”
“If we can really get a handle on what packaging is made of and how we process that, that really does put a big dent in our whole waste stream.”
Extended producer responsibility is the guiding framework for legislation under development by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that would shift the cost burden of packaging that is non-recyclable or difficult to recycle onto the companies that make the packaging and distribute it.
“We’ve sort of been lulled into this sense that things are OK, especially if it’s got this recycling sign on it,” Grohoski said. “It’s important that we face some of these problems right here at home rather than shifting the responsibility.”
The bill, which is still being drafted, would require large producers to pay money into a fund that would reimburse municipalities for the costs of recycling. Grohoski defined large producers as those with more than one point of sale who are selling more than $1 million in revenue or 1 ton of product within state borders. The fee would vary depending on how easily recyclable the packaging is.
“The worse the packaging the more they pay,” Grohoski said.
A producer would pay more, for instance, for packaging that contains toxic chemicals or multiple layers (i.e., those boxes within boxes).
Producers at all stages of the process would be responsible for paying into the system, Grohoski said.
If a bottle of Tide detergent, for instance, were to be packaged in an Amazon box and shipped to Maine, both Amazon and Tide would pay a fee depending on how easily recyclable the materials are.
Because of computerized inventories, “We actually do have a really good sense of what is coming into the state and being sold,” Grohoski said. “We are able to determine who are the producers of the packaging. If you don’t comply you can’t sell your stuff in Maine anymore.”
Not all packaging would be subject to fees — packaging that’s 100 percent biodegradable, for instance, would likely be exempt, or producers would pay very little — and state staff are working hard to ensure that small Maine companies aren’t hurt by the proposal, Grohoski said.
It’s true that the cost of some products might go up as companies shift the fee to consumers, said Grohoski, possibly on the order of a few cents, “but that would be an appropriate place to have that being paid for, I would argue.”
Consumers are already bearing the cost of recycling, she argued.
“We’re bearing it indirectly through our tax dollars,” Grohoski said. “It would be more appropriate to associate the cost of packaging directly with the product.”
She added: “Property taxpayers are not the people who should be paying for recycling. Those who waste more, they will pay more, and that is also equitable, I believe.”
Companies would be sent an annual bill that would take into account how easily recyclable their packaging is and how much of it they’re sending into the state, money that would be put into a fund (managed by an independent third party) to offset the cost of recycling for Maine municipalities.
Communities across the country, including Ellsworth, have slashed recycling programs in recent years as the cost to recycle materials has skyrocketed.
“We are already paying, as taxpayers, about $11-$13 [per capita] to get rid of this waste and we’re doing a less than 30 percent recovery rate,” Grohoski said.
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. Disposing of packaging alone cost Maine communities approximately $17.5 million in 2018, according to DEP figures.
The idea of asking producers to pay for disposal of their products is not new.
Maine has long had systems in place for cost-sharing of disposal of items including lead-acid batteries, house paint and bottles.
In Belgium, which recovers roughly 80 percent of its waste and has had an extended producer responsibility system in place for three decades, taxpayers were reimbursed for 100 percent of the $160 million it cost to run the country’s recycling system.
“If we change our system then the other systems will follow,” Grohoski argued. “The producers will be incentivized to create better packaging.”
Once the bill is drafted, it will be voted on in committee and likely face votes in the House and Senate.