The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Maine’s New Recycling Law Makes Companies Pay for Recycling

  • October 14th, 2021 — by Betsy Lee Montague — Category: Miscellaneous

  • Many states are beginning to revisit their laws concerning plastic recycling, especially those that apply to manufacturers and retailers of plastic products. California, for example, recently enacted a slate of bills regulating recyclability and compostability claims on packaging, restricting exports of plastic scrap and updating the state's container redemption program. On the other side of the country, the governor of Maine signed into law LD 1541 (“An Act To Support and Improve Municipal Recycling Programs and Save Taxpayer Money”) on July 13, 2021, making Maine the first state to require companies that create consumer packaging to pay for the costs of its recycling through an Extended Producer Responsibility (“EPR”) law. Maine’s new EPR law aims to increase recycling rates and decrease packaging pollution while also saving taxpayers money. The EPR law will require all producers that produce garbage from packaging, both big and small—from Amazon to local Maine businesses—to fund the recycling of that packaging by paying into a larger fund that reimburses municipalities. More specifically, the income generated from the companies will be used to support recycling efforts in local communities that previously relied on taxpayer dollars.

    Maine is requiring producers to cover 100 percent of municipalities’ recycling costs. One of the bill’s sponsors in the Maine House of Representatives, Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D - Ellsworth), indicated in an interview with Portland, Maine’s NBC affiliate WCSH that the “[t]he first priority of the bill is to right now take what is a taxpayer burden and shift that back onto the producers of the [communities in Maine] want to offer recycling, but they don’t have the money to do it, so this would create a revenue stream to create proper recycling programs for everyone in Maine.” In addition to shifting the cost of recycling to the producers, Maine’s new law also will make recycling more uniform statewide.

    Until recently, China was purchasing the majority of United States recyclables. However, in 2018, China banned importation of several recyclable materials. Following China’s ban, there was no market for the export of recyclable waste anymore, which triggered recycling costs to soar in the United States. According to the Solid Waste Association of North America’s Applied Research Foundation, there was a 50% drop in profit received from the sale of recyclables recovered through curbside pickup, amounting to an annual loss of about $400 million in revenue to local municipalities. As a result, dozens of cities across the United States suspended their recycling programs or turned to landfilling and burning recyclables they had collected. Following the recycling crisis in 2018, state legislatures and environmental agencies began looking for alternative solutions, one of which was EPR laws.

    Although EPR laws are new to the United States, nearly all European Union member states, Japan, South Korea, and five Canadian provinces have laws that shift the cost of recycling from taxpayers to the producers of such packaging. Sarah Nichols, director of the Sustainable Maine Program at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, has predicted that many other states will follow Maine and pass EPR laws. Oregon enacted a similar EPR bill in August, and nearly a dozen states—including California and New York—are considering similar bills that have been introduced over the past few months.

    Many companies, such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Walmart, showed their commitment to support policies like the EPR programs by signing a pledge to solve the “packaging waste and pollution crisis.” However, according to the New York Times, many packaging and retail industries, including local Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, voiced significant opposition to EPR programs in fear that the laws would lead to higher grocery prices for consumers. According to a study from Toronto’s York University, EPR policies could increase the consumer’s cost of products by up to $134 million a year, or as much as $60 for a family of four. Dan Felton, the executive director of the packaging industry group Ameripen, argued in a press release that the bill gave Maine’s government too much authority and left the industry with little voice in the process.

    Although the law was passed in July, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) has indicated that it may not fully go into effect until 2027. Maine’s state government has the responsibility and the final say as to how the program will be administered, including setting the fees. DEP will begin conducting a public rulemaking in 2022 to determine the details of the program as required by statute. Following this rulemaking process, DEP will hire an organization through a competitive bidding process to administer the program.

    Regardless of the program’s exact details, Maine’s new EPR law is poised to make an important environmental impact both in the state and across the nation. As other states act to combat plastic pollution, climate change, and other implicated environmental concerns, some may soon follow Maine’s lead and adopt EPR laws that reimagine the U.S.’s current recycling status quo.

  • Betsy Lee Montague
    NSGLC Blog Guest Author

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