AUGUSTA — The Maine House of Representatives voted 86-57 late Wednesday evening to advance LD 1541, a bill sponsored by Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) that is intended to stabilize recycling programs, collect better data and force large companies to pay for the recycling of their packaging, a program known as extended producer responsibility for packaging, or EPR.
“Our current recycling system isn’t fair and it isn’t working,” Grohoski wrote in a Facebook post on her page late Wednesday evening. “Maine taxpayers are paying an estimated $16 million annually to manage packaging materials and, at best, only 36 percent of these materials are being recycled. I am grateful to a tripartisan majority of my colleagues in the House for recognizing that, for the sake of our taxpayers and our environment, we cannot afford to maintain the status quo. As we’ve seen in Canada and Europe, creating an EPR for Packaging program would improve municipal recycling at no extra cost to consumers.”
Municipalities around the county and state have struggled with their recycling programs in recent years, with many opting to close them altogether, citing rising costs. Gouldsboro suspended its recycling program in 2018, hoping to start it up again once costs came down, which has yet to happen. Coastal Recycling, which served five Hancock County towns, closed its doors in 2019. Some of the towns it served planned to bring waste and recycling to the former Coastal Resources of Maine plant in Hampden, which opened briefly and then closed and has been out of commission since spring of 2020. Officials have said they hope to have the plant up and running again by 2022.
Grohoski’s 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. Maine already has producer responsibility programs in place for other items, including electronic waste, old paint and mercury thermostats.
The money collected from producers would be used in part to help municipalities offset the cost of recycling. There would be a tiered, flat fee option for low-volume producers, those who “deliver[ed], present[ed] or distribut[ed]” between 1 and 15 tons of packaging annually, not to exceed more than $500 per ton of packaging and no more than $7,500 each year. Producers making less than $5 million in total gross revenue would be exempt for the first three years of the program (that threshold would drop to $2 million thereafter), as would 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.
Some retail representatives have expressed concern about how such a program would affect retailers, and how much of the cost would be passed on to consumers, as well as the size of exempt organizations and the feasibility of collecting a list of producers participating (or not) in the program.
“We are significantly concerned that such a list could ever possibly be compiled,” said Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, at a hearing in April, “which puts retailers in a very difficult position, to try to figure out which of the products they’re carrying are complying with this law or not complying with this law.”
But collecting better data on the type and volume of packaging entering the state and where that packaging is going would help guide the Maine DEP in identifying gaps and helping communities make decisions about recycling programs, Sarah Nichols, Sustainable Maine director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), told The American in April.
“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.”
The bill faces more votes before it reaches the desk of Governor Janet Mills.