Maine’s intent to create a first-in-the-nation recycling reform program to force private companies to pay for cleaning up packaging materials is subject to two competing bills in the State House.

The state has developed plans for an “extended producer responsibility program” for packaging over the past two years. It would require big product makers to pay some local taxpayer recycling costs, and for recycling education and infrastructure. Five Canadian provinces and many European Union countries have had similar packaging material programs for years, but Maine could be the first state in the nation to implement its own system. At least nine states were set to consider packaging bills this year.

One of Maine’s bills, L.D. 1541, would empower the Department of Environmental Protection to contract with an organization to run the program and require companies to reimburse communities for the cost of disposing of materials that are not easily recyclable. It is an updated version of a proposal that received support from the committee before dying after the Legislature abruptly adjourned last year.

A second measure, L.D. 1471, would allow product makers to establish an independent, state-approved stewardship organization to manage payments to local governments and invest in new recycling infrastructure. Big manufacturers support that approach, which they say mirrors programs in other parts of the world.

Supporters of the original bill allege the industry’s proposal lacks the kind of regulation and enforcement a program needs and is an attempt to distract and complicate the issue for lawmakers.

Sarah Nichols, sustainable Maine director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said L.D. 1471 would “exempt producers from responsibility to clean up for their messes.”

“It is a mirage and it should be ignored,” Nichols said.

Maine taxpayers pay at least $16 million a year to manage packaging materials, about 30 percent of the state’s waste stream, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Soaring recycling costs in recent years, blamed on the Chinese government’s refusal to accept contaminated U.S. waste for recycling, has led some communities to cut back or cancel their recycling programs. That has hurt efforts to reach a statewide 50 percent recycling goal set in the 1980s, said Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, sponsor of L.D. 1541.

Her bill would shift responsibility back to major corporations that package products with materials that are difficult or impossible to recycle, Grohoski said.

The proposal “creates a market mechanism to support municipal recycling programs as well as incentives for producers to make better packaging over time,” she said. “Quite simply, it puts the cost back on the cost causers.”

Similar programs internationally have increased recycling rates and pushed companies to use less wasteful products, supporters say. Still, some costs would likely be shifted to consumers under such a program.

Environmental groups, individuals and local governments were among more than two dozen testifying in favor of Grohoski’s bill at a five-hour public hearing in front of the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources on Monday.

Right now, companies “have no incentive to make their products recyclable, make them durable, or to limit the amount of packaging used to contain and ship them,” Portland sustainability coordinator Troy Moon said in his testimony. “(L.D. 1541) would provide consumer goods companies with a financial incentive to reduce packaging and to make their products more readily recyclable or reusable.”

In Tremont, a small town on Mount Desert Island, at least 5 percent of the annual budget is spent disposing of packaging, Selectman Kevin Buck estimated. Tremont is among more than 20 towns and cities that signed a petition supporting the bill.

Resident taxes probably wouldn’t go down immediately if someone else paid that cost, but it could free up more money for different town expenses such as roadwork, Buck said.

“Hopefully, a lot of those programs wouldn’t be as delayed as they have been to this point,” he said.

Companies subject to the state’s program oppose the bill, arguing its terms are poorly defined, measuring and tracking materials is too difficult, it has too little room for producer engagement and could encourage landfilling materials instead of increased recycling.

The process outlined in L.D. 1541 is merely a tax used to subsidize existing municipal solid waste programs, not a true extended producer responsibility program, said Alison Keane, president of the Flexible Packaging Association, a trade group representing companies that make paper, plastic, foil and other packaging materials.

“A true … program would ensure that producers actually have more than just financial responsibility; that they have the ability to control how funding is used and invested to ensure the goals of the program are met or exceeded,” Keane said.

She and other industry representatives expressed support for L.D. 1471, which would shift the responsibility of creating a stewardship organization to private producers, instead of the state. It also would require a “needs assessment” to determine the recycling materials and costs companies would be responsible for.

The industry proposal is opposed by environmental groups and other parties including the DEP, which testified the bill “would not effectively address the management of packaging waste in Maine, has the potential to disrupt the state’s solid waste handling systems, and may improperly delegate certain functions and authority to a stewardship organization.”

Andy Hackman, a lobbyist for Ameripen, a packaging company trade group, said the industry-supported bill “represents our good-faith effort to create a structure that best represents the people of Maine” and is similar to the structure of programs in Canada and elsewhere.

That structure gives the state, local governments and producers an opportunity “to have a collaborative solution instead of contentious rulemaking, where you don’t have a chance to sit down at the table and talk about issues like education programs and recycling rates,” Hackman said. “There at least needs to be a forum for us to come together and tackle these issues.”


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