State policymakers alarmed by the growing number of Maine communities restricting or abandoning costly recycling programs will draft legislation requiring private companies to shoulder the cost of disposing of common household packaging.

The proposed measure is partially a response to the collapse of global markets for recyclables such as paper and plastic. Communities accustomed to getting paid to export low-value material to China were caught off guard last year when the national government effectively banned imports of recyclables.

Officials estimate Maine taxpayers spent at least $16 million last year to get rid of recyclables. Increased cost drove some communities to limit accepted materials and at least six towns have quit recycling altogether, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Now, waste once destined for China is piling up in landfills and incinerators here, taking Maine further from its three-decade goal of recycling half its household waste. As of 2017, the state’s recycling rate was 38 percent.

To help the state reach its goal, lawmakers this year passed a resolve that directs the DEP to draft a bill that would force packing material producers to pay at least 80 percent of disposal costs for materials that are not easily recyclable, invest in new recycling infrastructure and make products that are easier to recycle.

Sarah Lakeman, Sustainable Maine director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, thinks that an “extended producer responsibility” program for packaging would at least shield consumers from bearing the cost of swings in volatile recycling markets.

“It is a cost shift off of taxpayers, who did not create the problem, they have no control over what is designed and put in the market,” Lakeman said. “At the best, if we design it the right way, it would encourage better product design and more access to recycling.”

Lee Schroeder grabs recycling from her car to put in a bin at the Cape Elizabeth transfer station on July 1. Schroeder said she brings recycling to the center two or three times a week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

China’s policy move unveiled an underlying problem in the U.S. recycling industry, she said. A lot of what the U.S. was sending overseas was contaminated with household trash and other waste that ended up in foreign landfills.

“Recycling was never all that great to begin with,” Lakeman said.

VOLATILE MARKET

Even though the recycling market is in the doldrums, Kevin Roche thinks pulling back or canceling municipal recycling programs is a terrible idea.

Roche, the director of ecomaine, a municipally-owned regional solid waste company in Portland, urges member communities to hang on and bear extra costs until the market turns around.

“We believe it is shortsighted to abandon recycling programs, and we believe it would be a huge mistake,” Roche said.

“Recycling has been cyclical, it is expected to be that way,” he said. “Over the long haul, the recycling markets have performed very well for those communities that are doing it.”

After China’s ban, the value of paper, cardboard and plastic collapsed. In 2017, ecomaine received $89 a ton for mixed paper, a combination of magazines, junk mail, glossy papers and cardboard. That fell to $4 a ton last year. Because of market constraints, ecomaine stored bales of compacted paper for months, until it found someone to buy it.

Finding customers for mixed paper is critical because the material is low-value but makes up about 65 percent of ecomaine’s entire recycling tonnage, Roche said.

Demand is up this year, but prices are still depressed – ecomaine is paying $21 a ton to have mixed paper taken away. A sluggish market will persist until domestic demand picks up, Roche said. Some companies are adjusting manufacturing to take advantage of paper material. Last year, ND Paper said it plans to upgrade its plant in Rumford to produce recycled pulp from mixed paper.

The “incredibly adaptive” recycling industry will adjust to new market conditions, but making up China’s former demand will take time, agreed Joe Pickard, chief economist at the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries. Before last year, China imported about one-third of U.S. recycling.

Chuck Catroppo staffs the recycling bins at the Cape Elizabeth transfer station. The town removed recycling bins from the back parking lot of Town Hall because people were dumping too many items in it that weren’t recyclable. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Until the market corrects, it will be tough for municipal recycling programs, Pickard said. Consumers were lulled into believing recycling is free, when the full cost was masked by the Chinese importing the dirtiest, least valuable material sometimes created by single-stream programs that commingle different recyclable materials.

“I think there was some shortsightedness in terms of the customers the municipalities were expecting to service, an unstopped growth in Chinese demand,” Pickard said.

CHANGING OPERATIONS

Although none of the 20 southern Maine towns and cities that jointly own ecomaine have canceled recycling, some have restricted access to prevent contamination with household waste. Towns and cities can be fined up to $70.50 a ton for contaminated recycling delivered to ecomaine. At the start of this month, a mandatory $35 per-ton fee was tacked on to cover transportation and processing costs.

In the last year, Portland and surrounding communities took out unattended public recycling containers because they were getting filled with trash. Brunswick and Auburn have considered dropping recycling, and some Portland-area towns have enlisted interns to check curbside bins for inappropriate material.

Garence Anderson removes his recycling from plastic bags before putting it in a bin at the Cape Elizabeth transfer station. Ecomaine can’t recycle plastic bags. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Cape Elizabeth officials this year removed recycling bins at Town Hall because people were dropping off food waste, bulky items and leaf and yard scraps, public works director Bob Malley said. Now all residents have to dispose recycling under the watchful eyes of attendants at the transfer station.

“It is unfortunate we had to remove them because a lot of people liked to use them when the recycling center was not open,” Malley said.

Advocates hope that a product stewardship program could improve Maine’s recycling programs, but industry groups are opposed to the measure. Representatives from the plastics and paper industry argue similar programs in Canada and the European Union have created higher prices for consumers and inefficient bureaucracies.

Andrew Hackman, a lobbyist for AMERIPEN, a trade group representing major packing manufacturers, said the group supports taking some responsibility for recycling costs, but Maine’s proposal puts too much onus on producers.

“This resolve clearly says the entire responsibility falls to the manufacturer,” Hackman said. “We haven’t seen numbers that show that improves recycling and the material that comes in.”

The group would prefer better consumer education about recycling and added programs to reduce waste, such as pay-as-you-throw trash disposal fees.

“We believe there needs to be some element of shared responsibility,” Hackman said. “There is a baseline cost to collecting this material, we all collectively have a portion of that.”

Terry Webber, executive director of the packaging wing for the American Forest and Paper Association, said his group won’t support a packaging stewardship program.

“The opinion of our folks is that if you look at the record of those programs, they are extraordinarily good at increasing costs to consumers, but not very good at increasing recovery rates,” Webber said.

Paper products already have a recycling rate of about 68 percent and almost all cardboard is recycled, Webber said. The paper industry shouldn’t have to subsidize the cost of addressing plastic waste, the real focus of reform, he said.

“It gives our industry heartburn if fees and taxes raised from us would be used to tackle the high-priority issue right now, which is plastic,” Webber said.

The DEP has until mid-December to come up with a draft bill for the Legislature to consider next year. The resolve, L.D. 1431, was sponsored by Rep. Michael Devin, D-Newcastle, and signed by Gov. Janet Mills in May.

Maine has product stewardship requirements for items such as cellphones, mercury thermostats and switches, paint and some batteries. The state’s bottle bill, that tacks a small deposit on beverage containers, is another example, said Paula Clark, director of the materials management division at the DEP.

Department staff intend to work with both sides of the issue over the next few months before submitting a draft, Clark said.

“We are hoping to get everyone engaged on this,” she said.

This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. on July 9 to correct the 2019 recycling price for mixed paper. 

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