AUGUSTA — Cities and towns could have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional fees to help fund new efforts to stimulate composting and recycling under a wide-ranging solid waste bill that came before Maine lawmakers Wednesday.
Supporters, including major environmental groups, said the composting measure would encourage municipalities to send less waste to landfills or incinerators, while improving stagnant recycling rates.
But critics contended that the new fees would be a burden to businesses as well as communities already struggling with cuts in state revenue sharing.
The conflicting testimony came in a hearing before the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which is considering the most sweeping proposal to overhaul Maine’s solid waste laws in years. The “omnibus” bill has been discussed in committee workshops over the past several months.
The legislation aims to further reduce the amount of trash headed into Maine landfills while acknowledging that the state remains far short of its official goal of composting or recycling 50 percent of trash.
Key portions of the proposal include:
• Requiring food manufacturers, restaurants, hospitals and schools that generate more than one ton of food waste per week to send that waste to a local composting facility.
• Prohibiting manufacturers from selling batteries in Maine unless they participate in a used battery collection and recycling program.
• Changing the fees charged for landfilled or incinerated waste, with the proceeds funding grants or low-interest loans for programs aimed at increasing recycling or composting rates.
• Applying the 5 cent bottle deposit to containers of Maine-produced apple cider and blueberry juice.
Bill sponsor Sen. Tom Saviello, a Republican from Wilton who has co-led the review of Maine’s solid waste laws, said the bill is “our best work ever” even as he requested that its many critics in the audience suggest ways to improve it.
“I ask everybody to recognize what is working as we talk about this, what is not working and what we can do to do better,” Saviello said.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection elected not to participate in most of the workshops held by the committee last year but worked with Saviello on the bill language. DEP representatives testified neither for nor against the bill but offered several suggested amendments to improve implementation.
But there was considerable opposition to a proposal to begin charging $1 for every ton of waste handled by a landfill, processing facility or incineration plant. Under current law, the “municipal solid waste surcharge” is $2 for every ton of waste that is landfilled. The new charge would replace this.
Geoff Herman, a lobbyist with the Maine Municipal Association, estimated the change would generate an additional $500,000 a year – much of it borne by municipalities – because it would assess a fee on the amount of waste going to an incinerator. All 70 members of the organization’s policy committee were opposed to the bill because they are already seeing a decrease in “revenue sharing” from Augusta to cover the costs of state mandates.
“The timing is not good for this,” Herman told committee members. “Of all of the mandates imposed by state government, solid waste is in the top tier.”
Maine residents generated nearly 1.2 million tons – 2.4 billion pounds – of municipal solid waste in 2014 while the construction/demolition industry and other sources contributed another 1.5 million tons, according to the most recent DEP statistics.
In 1989, the Legislature set a goal of recycling or composting 50 percent of municipal solid waste, with the most recent target date set for January 2014. But Mainers only recycled or composted 36 percent of municipal solid waste in 2014, prompting state lawmakers this year to recommend re-setting the target date for achieving a 50 percent recycling rate to 2021.
A 2011 study of trash generated by Mainers, conducted by the University of Maine, estimated that 38.4 percent of disposed of municipal solid waste going to landfills or incinerators could be composted and another 21.7 percent could be recycled. Only 40 percent was deemed suitable only for landfilling or incineration.
One of the most controversial aspects of the bill, L.D. 1578, would require “large quantity commercial food generators” that generate at least one ton of food waste per week to send that waste to a composting facility beginning Jan. 1, 2020. The requirement would only apply to waste generators located within 20 miles of a composting facility, and the proposal would allow businesses to seek a waiver for financial hardship.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine, as well as representatives of Maine’s growing composting industry, testified in support of those aspects of the bill.
“The Legislature is right to move forward with this in Maine,” said Sarah Lakeman with the resources council. “I think we have adequate infrastructure.”
Representatives from the Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Food Grocers and Food Producers Association and the Maine Hospital Association either testified against or raised concerns about the composting requirement. Maine already has a growing composting industry driven by businesses voluntarily sending their “organic waste” to farms, composting facilities or other recipients, often for free.
“It does not make sense to us to add administrative costs and impose fees on businesses already doing the right thing,” Shelley Doak, representing the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, said in written testimony.
Maine’s proposed battery recycling program, which would apply to both single-use and rechargeable batteries, received strong support from major players in the industry, however.
The proposal is modeled after – but not identical to – a “product stewardship” program enacted in Vermont last year that also requires battery manufacturers to participate in a collection and recycling program.
Mark Kohorst with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, which includes major battery manufacturing labels, said a recent survey of batteries at collection sites in other states found that 25 percent were made by “free riders,” companies not participating in recycling collection programs.
“We know for a fact that there are a lot of batteries out there put into the market by manufacturers who are not providing for the cost of managing them at the end of the life,” Kohorst said. “The intent of this bill, which we hope to pass here and in other states, is to force full participation.”