Maine lawmakers have passed a bill to regulate packaging materials by making private companies shoulder the cost to dispose of waste – such as plastic, paper and cardboard – and improve the state’s recycling programs.

If the bill is signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills, Maine would become one of the first U.S. states to create such a program, known as extended producer responsibility, for packaging materials. A similar bill cleared the Oregon Legislature last week.

Mills’ office would not say Friday whether the governor plans to sign the bill, but it was her Department of Environmental Protection that originally drafted the proposal in 2019 at the direction of the Legislature.

Countries around the world have had similar programs for years. Maine and other states started seriously considering proposals in the past few years as costs to manage recycling soared and the state’s recycling rate declined.

Maine’s bill, L.D. 1541, passed the House and Senate with bipartisan votes in mid-June but was held up until the state budget passed. The Legislature took a final vote on the measure early Friday morning.

Supporters cheered the bill as a first step toward shifting responsibility for the waste piling up in towns and cities onto the companies that make it, as well as meeting the state’s waste management and recycling goals.

“We applaud the Maine Legislature for enacting this exciting first-in-the-nation legislation that shifts the costs of wasteful packaging from taxpayers and towns to the large corporations responsible for it,” Maine Conservation Voters Outreach Manager Abigail Bradford said in a statement. “This legislation will help improve recycling and provide an incentive to produce less waste.”

Opponents urged Mills to veto the bill, claiming the way it is structured will give state government too much control over the program.

The packaging industry supports sharing some financial responsibility for recycling and recovery of its materials, but the bill “creates an overly bureaucratic system that will increase costs for the people of Maine,” Dan Felton, executive director of Ameripen, a packaging industry trade group, said in a prepared statement.

“A veto of this misguided legislation will allow Ameripen and other interested stakeholders time to continue seeking consensus on alternative legislation that will actually have meaningful impact on packaging and recycling in Maine,” Felton said.

The current proposal has been in development since 2019 and included consultation with interested parties across the spectrum, including municipalities, environmental groups and producers.

Lawmakers amended the bill to address complaints from private industry before it was endorsed in May by a majority of the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

Under the bill, companies that produce packaging materials would pay into a fund managed by a third-party stewardship organization contracted by the Department of Environmental Protection. Charges would be based on packaging type and the weight of packaging that companies produce.

The bill would cover most packaging materials, such as plastic, glass, paper and cardboard. It would not apply to most beverage containers already covered by the state’s bottle bill, or paint containers, which are covered under a similar program.

Small producers, those with less than $2 million in revenue, would be exempt from the requirements. Costs for producers that deliver 15 tons of packaging material or less a year would be capped at $7,500 a year.

Municipalities would receive payments from the fund to offset the cost of recycling and disposing of packaging materials. Funds also would be used for operating costs, education and infrastructure to improve waste disposal in Maine.

Companies can reduce their costs by making their products with more recycled or reusable materials, less toxic and weighty, as well as by reducing litter or adding clear labels.

Recycling costs have surged in Maine and the U.S. in recent years, partly because of high standards for waste imports enacted by China three years ago. Maine’s environmental regulators estimate packaging material accounts for 30 to 40 percent, by weight, of the solid waste handled in Maine, costing municipalities $17 million a year.

Maine has never met a goal it set three decades ago to recycle 50 percent of its waste. In 2019, the state’s recycling rate was about 38 percent, slightly less than two years before, and it cost less to put waste in landfills than it did to recycle it.

The Department of Environmental Protection would be responsible for creating program rules, including the per-weight cost of different materials. The stewardship organization would have to maintain a public list of product codes subject to regulation.

Supporters of the program believe it will shift responsibility for heaps of packaging materials onto producers and push them to create less wasteful products. Dozens of countries and at least five Canadian provinces have similar programs.

But opponents have claimed such a program could raise prices on everyday consumer items and argued the program proposed in Maine would be too heavily controlled by the state. Trade associations and their allies proposed a law that would have given private industry more responsibility to set up a stewardship organization.


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