A first-in-the-nation bill intended to shift consumer packaging disposal costs from local taxpayers to private manufacturers received a mixed reaction during a prolonged public hearing at the State House on Wednesday.

The legislation would create an extended producer responsibility program requiring producers, through a third-party organization, to reimburse towns and cities for the cost of getting rid of packaging waste. Producers would pay based on the weight of packaging they sell. They could offset payments by implementing recycling programs, reducing the amount of material they sell, redesigning packaging to make it lighter and more recyclable, and other incentives.

Supporters of the bill, L.D. 2104, say big corporations have to shoulder responsibility for disposal, which would encourage them to make cleaner and more easily recyclable products. But opponents of the bill who spoke during the six-hour public hearing said it was poorly written, would disadvantage Maine employers, and is not the only way to deal with high recycling costs and packaging waste.

A Chinese import ban on most materials has sent the U.S. recycling industry into a tailspin, and towns and cities are now shouldering huge bills, said Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, the bill’s sponsor. In his hometown, recycling costs $138,000 this year, more than it would to landfill the waste, Tucker said. The town council considered canceling its curbside recycling program, but voted to keep it for at least a year in the hope that relief would come from the state.

More than a dozen communities have signed a resolution in favor of the bill, Tucker said.

“This is now a major problem that needs a statewide policy solution,” Tucker said. “Our current course is unsustainable, product stewardship is the future.

“This year, next year, 10 years from now, it will happen.”

If passed, the process of setting rules for the complicated program would start at the end of December 2021. The program might cost producers $14 million to $16 million a year, but could vary from year to year, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The Legislature directed the department to draft the bill last year.

Environmental groups, taxpayers and local government officials are in favor of the program. Dozens of countries across the world, including the European Union and five Canadian provinces, have similar extended producer responsibility, or EPR, programs.

There is a movement to introduce EPR programs to the U.S., too, said Scott Cassel, CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute, a Boston-based organization. Maine might be too small to make a big difference on its own, but a critical mass of states with similar laws could stimulate industrial change, Cassel told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

“What we are trying to do as an organization is to value harmonization, that is what the industry wants,” he said. “That is what will drive them to the table.”

Something has to change, and quickly, if citizens want to keep recycling programs, said Mark Draper, solid waste director for  Aroostook Waste Solutions, which serves 20 communities in northern Maine. An EPR program can insulate local taxpayers from a fluctuating market, Draper said. While his organization has not changed its program, escalating costs are forcing towns and cities to make tough spending choices.

“We are hanging on, but we are hanging on by a thread,” he said.

A number of Maine companies said they support the bill’s intent, but as written it would hurt their business and be difficult to follow.

Extra fees on packaging would be shifted onto consumers and make to harder to compete, said Amy Tardiff, vice president and general counsel at J.S. McCarthy Printers in Augusta. It also would not resolve the problems with the state’s recycling system, she added.

“Recycling today is failing because it is a market-driven activity,” Tardiff said. “Levying a tax to fund increasingly expensive recycling programs does not address the root cause.”

Kate McAleer, a craft candy entrepreneur who owns Bixby and Co. chocolate company in Rockland, said some of her packaging is required by federal food safety rules and that increased costs would make it even harder to compete. An exemption in the bill for small local producers was too limited to help her company, she said.

“To target small, family-owned food manufacturers is not in line with what Maine stands for,” McAleer said. “I think you just don’t want to be targeting the good food manufacturers along with the big bad ones.”

Numerous committee members said that the small-business exemption is confusing and needs clarification.

Other national and state trade groups and associations also spoke against the bill, citing disruption to their industries, vague definitions and wording, and an inability to show how much it would cost producers.

The state should hold off on a bill until it has discussed it with all the producers it would impact, said Kate Reilly, an environmental and sustainability manager with the Consumer Technology Association, a national trade group. Without discussing problems with recycling programs and working with the industry to solve it, the proposed Maine law would just funnel money from producers into a system that isn’t working, she said.

“The necessary stakeholders have not reached that agreement in Maine and I think it would be premature to push forward with EPR for packaging in Maine,” Reilly said.

However, Rep. Stanley Zeigler, D-Montville, said he had heard too much from opponents of the bill who did not offer ways to improve or stabilize the system, outside of proposals for more consumer education.

“Unless you have an option and an alternative, we have to more forward,” Zeigler said.

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