Corporate pledges to bear a greater share of the cost of managing America’s trash are being tested in Maine, which could become the first state to charge businesses for the cost of recycling.
State lawmakers could vote on legislation imposing a fee on bottles, boxes, food wrappers, and other packaging to fund waste programs as soon as this week, a concept known as extended producer responsibility. However, the measure is being opposed by some of the companies that, in theory, supported the practice just this year.
If the bill is passed, it will be the first of its kind in the country, giving impetus to a broader push by state legislators to reduce plastic waste and rationalize a recycling system that is outdated, confusing, and varies from town to town.
This is a goal shared by business organizations such as AMERIPEN, which represents plastics manufacturers and consumer goods companies, the Consumer Brands Association, and the American Chemistry Council. Earlier this year, trade groups and their members, including Dow Chemical Co., PepsiCo, and Nestlé, endorsed packaging fees.
The industry’s political shift was motivated in part by self-interest. Corporations have pledged to use more recycled materials in response to customer and shareholder pressure. However, without access to salvaged waste, brands will be unable to deliver on their promises. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, less than one-third of packaging and only 9% of plastic are recycled.
State-level campaigns to control and manage plastic waste were gaining traction until the Covid-19 pandemic shut down capitals and masks, gloves, take-out containers, and other single-use items became essential.
The push has recently resumed. In May, Washington passed legislation requiring plastic bottles to contain more recycled material. Colorado lawmakers voted last week to prohibit the use of plastic bags. This year, a dozen states have introduced extended producer responsibility legislation. According to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, only Maine is on the verge of passing legislation.
The bill in Maine would require the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to open a competitive bidding process to manage the program. Groups interested in the position would be required to estimate waste and recycling costs, as well as the investments required to improve the system. Packaging manufacturers, municipalities, environmental groups, and waste and recycling companies would all be required to provide feedback.
Once a plan is in place, regulators will determine the packaging fee. The revenue would be used to reimburse local governments for recycling, waste hauling, and landfilling, which are estimated to cost Maine residents between $16 million and $17 million per year.
Proponents of the legislation claim that trade groups are unwilling to compromise and that they are spreading false information about the measure’s economic impact.
Nichols believes that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for waste that cannot be recycled. She also chastised the Retail Association of Maine and the industry-funded Campaign for Recycling and Environment for statements and Facebook ads warning that if the legislation becomes law, household grocery bills could rise by more than $50 per month. According to her, the finding stems from a study that used questionable methodology and was written by an author with a conflict of interest.
He acknowledged that the study’s data quality was “extraordinarily poor,” because most jurisdictions, including Maine, do not track what types of packaging are recycled or how much it costs to dispose of it. Lakhan estimated that Maine’s proposed program would cost state residents $99 million per year, based on data from Ontario’s extended producer program that was adjusted for regional differences. That is six times the amount estimated by the state. Furthermore, there is no way of knowing how packaged goods companies and retailers will react to increased costs, according to Lakhan.
Packaging fees, according to Phil Rozenski, vice president of foodservice packaging company Novolex and president and CEO of the Campaign for Recycling and Environment, will be factored into the cost of goods and ultimately paid by consumers.
If Maine’s bill becomes law, it could pave the way for others to follow. Following the failure of earlier efforts this year, Washington and New York are expected to consider a packaging tax next year.