ELLSWORTH — Supporters and opponents of a bill that would shift the cost of recycling from local taxpayers to manufacturers and consumers clashed at a six-hour-long public hearing in Augusta on Feb. 26.
The proposal, known as extended producer responsibility (EPR), would be the first of its kind in the nation, although similar measures have been in place in parts of Canada and the European Union for decades. The legislation would require those who produce packaging to pay a fee (collected by a third-party organization) based on the weight of the packaging they sell. The money would be used to reimburse municipalities for the cost of recycling. The easier the packaging is to recycle, the less a producer would pay.
Reaction to the plans was mixed last Wednesday. Supporters of the bill, LD 2104, argued that forcing producers to pay would incentivize them to redesign packaging to be lighter and more easily recyclable and would shift the cost away from property taxpayers and onto companies and consumers. Opponents said the bill was poorly written and that it could unintentionally target small Maine businesses. Many advocated for more consumer education around proper recycling, rather than legislation.
“It’s a bill to save recycling,” Rep. Ralph Tucker (D-Brunswick), who sponsored the legislation, told the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources last week.
“The rapidly increasing cost and responsibility for disposal of packaging waste should no longer fall solely on town property taxpayers,” Tucker said. “Costs and responsibility should be shared by brand names, packagers and consumers who put this material into the stream of commerce in the first place.”
The Legislature last summer directed the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to draft plans to fix the state’s recycling crisis. If LD 2104 passes, the state would begin developing rules for the program at the end of 2021.
As it’s written, the legislation would apply to large producers, defined as those with more than one point of sale who are generating more than $1 million in revenue or one ton of packaging within state borders.
Several farmers and food producers said that while they would like to see recycling reform, they worry that the costs of complying with such a program would cut into their already thin profit margins.
“Our dairy farmers are incredibly nervous about this bill, as their profit margin is already negligible,” testified Julie Ann Smith, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau Association, a nonprofit that lobbies for farmers around the state.
“There currently is not an alternative way to sell milk without packaging,” said Smith, “but this bill would necessitate an increase in the cost of milk, which frequently results in a decrease in the purchase of liquid milk by consumers.”
For food safety reasons, said Smith, the federal government dictates what kind of packaging is used.
“We urge the committee to consider how farmers can follow federal regulations without a financial penalty,” Smith said.
But other businesses were in favor of the plans. Ponch Membreño, national retail development manager for clothing retailer Toad & Co., testified that “running a sustainable business is also increasingly more important for the bottom line.” Consumers, wrote Membreño, “are more willing than ever to boycott brands that they believe are not helping in our flight against climate change.”
Ellsworth’s City Council is one of at least a dozen municipal bodies that have voted to support recycling reform in the state, although the council vote on Valentine’s Day was divided, 4-3. Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth), has been a vocal champion of the legislation, and testified at the hearing on Feb. 26.
Grohoski challenged those who opposed the bill to come up with a better plan.
“If we shouldn’t use this approach that you already comply with elsewhere, then what do you suggest we do to get a handle on our waste stream?” Grohoski wondered. “Education, perhaps? I can run around telling everyone I meet that recycling is critical to using our resources responsibly, keeping plastic out of our ocean, or mitigating climate change, but what happens when they go to our recycling center in Ellsworth and find that most of the items with recycling symbols are not accepted?”
There is a work session on the bill scheduled for Thursday, March 5, at 1 p.m.