AUGUSTA — Draft language of a bill introduced by state Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) intended to stabilize recycling programs, collect better data and force large corporations to pay for the recycling of their packaging was introduced last week, a similar measure to a bill approved in committee last year.
“Municipalities are struggling under the high and unpredictable costs of disposing of packaging waste and this is not appropriate for the taxpayers to be paying for when they have no say over what the packaging is,” Grohoski said Friday. “We need to shift the cost back to the cost-causers and this bill does that in a way that protects our small businesses, our Maine-based businesses, but makes sure that international corporations are paying their fair share … We’re going after the people that are really the problem and we’re not interested in nitpicking about people that are not part of the problem.”
Grohoski’s bill, L.D. 1541, “An Act to Support and Improve Municipal Recycling Programs and Save Taxpayer Money,” is aimed primarily at large companies, ranging from Toshiba to Tostitos. Brands selling products in Maine that make less than $2 million in total gross revenue, sell less than 1 ton of packaging material in total or realize “a majority of gross revenue from the sale of goods acquired through insurance salvages, closeouts, bankruptcies and liquidations” would be exempt. The legislation also includes an option for midsized companies that produce between 1 and 15 tons of packaging waste to pay a flat fee of no more than $500 per ton of packaging.
“This type of system has been in place for over 30 years,” said Sarah Nichols, Sustainable Maine director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). “A lot of these bigger producers are already doing it everywhere else.”
The European Union has had similar directives in place since 1994, with a revised goal that “all packaging on the EU market is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030.” Similar laws are also in place in parts of Canada, including British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec. Maine already has producer responsibility programs in place for other items, including electronic waste, old paint, and mercury thermostats.
The bill would create a stewardship organization, overseen by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to manage fees paid by producers, which would vary depending on the design, amount and type of packaging, said Grohoski, with the organization’s administrative fees also paid by producers.
“We’re looking to use a structure like this to not just pay for current recycling and disposal costs but to move us toward better packaging. The more readily recyclable your packaging is, the less you pay. If there are toxins in your packaging that are hard to manage or bad for the environment, the more you pay. We’re trying to internalize those costs that are currently externalizing to make sure we get better packaging.”
Municipalities would be reimbursed from the producer fee fund for certain costs associated with recycling and waste management costs, including collection, transportation and litter cleanup.
“To get reimbursed,” said Nichols, “municipalities have to give the data that shows what they’re collecting. That’s a huge win, just that.” Although they are encouraged to report every two years, the information that comes into the DEP is woefully incomplete — in 2018, only 104 municipalities submitted reports, out of 487 that were notified, according to the DEP.
“It’s a system change,” said Nichols. “Right now, we’re approaching recycling all wrong. With this system we would know how much and what type of material is coming into the state, because that would have to be reported on.”
Both Nichols and Grohoski said it’s likely that, if the legislation were implemented, recycling rates would fall, at least at first, because they would more accurately reflect what is actually being recycled, rather than what’s being collected for recycling, which is what’s done now.
“Recycling rates are going to really drop once you start calculating it this way,” said Nichols. “I think it’s better to know. When you recycle something, you feel a little less bad about using it. The plastic industry understands that,” she said, touting products as recyclable when “that’s never really been the case.”
An investigation by NPR and PBS “Frontline” released last year found that the plastics industry was aware as early as the 1970s that recycling plastic would likely never “be made viable on an economic basis,” especially since it costs less to produce new plastic that is typically of higher quality than recycled plastic.
A packaging stewardship bill introduced by Sen. Jim Dill (D-Penobscot County), L.D. 1471, “An Act to Establish a Stewardship Program for Packaging,” is also making its way through the Legislature. Although similar in some ways, it would exempt a number of materials, including reusable food service containers, drugs and medical devices (and their associated packaging), packaging for hazardous materials or insecticides, or products that, “by design, and as a result of the anticipated use by a consumer of the material or the product the material contains or protects, becomes unsafe or unsanitary to recycle.”
Grohoski said that, while she hadn’t made a side-by-side comparison, she had looked for aspects of Sen. Dill’s bill to incorporate. “This is an industry bill that’s been presented by AMERIPEN [The American Institute for Packaging and the Environment], which represents flexible packaging products,” said Grohoski. “There’s a lot of exemptions for any kind of packaging that the government restricts for health and safety reasons. I don’t agree with that, because that’s all still packaging that ends up in our waste stream and municipalities have to pay for it.”
Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce Director Gretchen Wilson said she’d begun reading through both bills to “figure out how this is going to affect us locally” but hadn’t yet heard reactions from local business owners. She said she supports the idea of the bill (“We definitely need to do something”) but wondered what effect Maine, as a small consumer area of the country, might have without larger states on board.
“I think there has to be a larger push than Maine, otherwise we will pay more,” she said. Wilson added that she hoped any bill would ensure support and infrastructure for municipalities that have struggled to deal with massive shifts in global markets.
“Is the infrastructure there?” Wilson wondered.
An analysis comparing prices in Canadian jurisdictions by Resource Recycling Systems found that, in the spring of 2020, prices were higher in places with an EPR by, on average, $0.0056 per item.
Grohoski said she’d heard similar concerns about price increases and companies pulling out of Maine but pointed to a list of more than 500 companies paying into similar programs in Canada that also do business in Maine, as well as states on the verge of passing legislation, including California, Oregon, Massachusetts and New York.
“Maine could be the first, but we will not be out on our limb for even a couple of months at the rate this is moving,” Grohoski said.