ELLSWORTH — In a divided vote, city councilors voted 4-3 on Monday evening to adopt a resolution supporting recycling reform for Maine that would put manufacturers on the hook for the costs associated with disposing of packaging.
Councilors Dale Hamilton, Marc Blanchette and Michelle Kaplan voted against the measure; John Phillips, John Moore, Heather Grindle and Robert Miller voted in favor.
The three councilors who voted against the resolution, which indicates the city’s support for an “an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging law as endorsed by the Legislature in 2019,” said they worried about expressing support for legislation that hadn’t yet been finalized and that they were concerned that the bill would increase the cost of goods for consumers.
As it’s written, the legislation would apply to large producers, defined as those with more than one point of sale who are selling more than $1 million in revenue or one ton of packaging within state borders. The companies would pay a fee that would vary depending on how easily recyclable the packaging is, money that would be used to support municipal recycling programs.
The bill is still being drafted, and those who brought the resolution forward were clear that councilors’ support does not indicate an endorsement of any particular language and can be withdrawn in the future.
“When I see language about banning sale of products that really concerns me in terms of overreach,” said Hamilton.
State Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth), who held an information session on the legislation in January, replied that the language banning those who don’t comply was added in part because “It’s sometimes easier for companies to just pay fines than participate,” and said that there are a variety of options for producers to pay into the system. She said that in other jurisdictions where such programs have been implemented, “everyone has complied,” as far as she is aware.
Councilor Kaplan said she worried the cost of goods would go up and argued in favor of educating consumers rather than implementing legislation.
“We have to look at changing the behavior of the purchaser more than trying to ban products or punish consumption,” she said. “We want to create a better economy with more responsible choices, not punish people for the choices that they make.”
But Grohoski replied that “We’re already paying. We’re already paying through our tax dollars.” Shifting the cost burden onto companies (who would, she acknowledged, likely pass it back onto consumers), “I would argue that that’s the right place to put the cost. If I, as a taxpayer, am very conscious about how much packaging I bring into my life, I’m being asked to pay for packaging that other people introduce into our waste stream on a basis based on how big my property is and what the valuation of my property is.”
“I personally think it’s more equitable for any cost that there is to be placed directly on the product.”
Right now, said Grohoski, companies have little incentive to create more ecologically friendly packaging, so those who would like a different packaging option are left in the lurch.
“If the consumers should ever have a choice we have to create a system in which a choice will happen. Right now the manufacturer’s number one goal is to package the product as cheaply as possible.”
In countries that have implemented such legislation, said Grohoski, “The cost that it does add to products is under a penny.”
But Councilor Blanchette was doubtful of that figure.
“Having been in business and buying packaging, when I made changes in the packaging that I needed, it cost me a whole lot more than just a penny apiece,” he said. “I passed that increased cost to me onto the customer, through higher prices.”
Councilor Phillips said he supported the shift, even if products do go up in price.
“So the consumer pays more,” he said. “But if you decide to buy that and I don’t, that’s alright, you’re responsible for getting rid of it. So it costs you 16 cents more? OK, but it’s your choice to buy that … it becomes a user fee rather than a general taxation fee.”
If the legislation is enacted, 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.
But Councilor Hamilton said he is skeptical of the state offering to manage a fund of EPR money. “The state does not have a very good track record of passing back dollars to the municipalities,” he said.
More than a dozen municipalities around the state, including Tremont, have passed resolutions in support of the concept, said Ellsworth Green Action Team Member Gary Fortier, who noted the bill is similar to the state’s bottle bill.
“We’ve got excellent track record in the state of making these programs work,” said Fortier. “I think this is the next great thing.”