Boxy McBoxface comes to the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) with several years of experience navigating the world of recycling economies and is excited to address the challenges facing Maine’s recycling system. Living as a cardboard box doll gives Boxy unique insight into the importance of making recycling effective, sustainable, and equitable for all Mainers.
Welcome, Boxy! Let’s dive right in! Can you tell us why Maine cities and towns are struggling to maintain their recycling programs?
Certainly! You have identified a fundamental flaw in the way we manage recycling right now, and that is, it’s funded entirely by property taxpayers in Maine’s municipalities who have no control over the materials that must be managed. As a result, any new and unexpected recycling costs are making it very difficult for towns to justify paying so much more to recycle than to dispose of their packaging waste in a cheap landfill.
People want to do the right thing and recycle for the environment and future generations, but there’s no policy in place to help make sure doing the right thing and recycling is easy, cost effective, and sustainable for Maine towns. One way to address this is to change who pays for recycling in a way that makes more sense than by taxing Maine people for a problem they didn’t create.
Another one of the underlying problems is that producers of product packaging are putting mass amounts of hard-to-recycle, or non-recyclable materials into our communities, and what, we are just supposed to take it? Landfill it? No, that is bad for our local environment and our health. We should not have to live with those dangers while corporations get off scot-free. We need to use policy to incentivize more eco-friendly packaging.
Boxy, you said that our approach to recycling is fundamentally flawed. Is that true everywhere, or is that just us?
Before coming to NRCM, I spent a lot of time backpacking through Europe. I really love trail mix, especially the kind with chocolate bits, and I was worried that the plastic containers my favorite brand comes in wouldn’t be recyclable from town to town. Thankfully it was. In fact, I didn’t struggle at all to find a recycling bin because waste separation stations were commonplace. Recycling in Europe was designed to be easy.
I later learned that this is because all 28 countries of the EU have adopted recycling laws, much like Maine’s extremely successful product stewardship laws for paint and batteries. Basically, in Europe and many other places around the world, the multinational businesses who make recyclables help those countries pay for their recycling programs. This gives them an incentive to plan for recycling in the design of their packaging. I think Maine people deserve that kind of help from producers of packaging, too.
So you are saying that we are NOT seeing the end of recycling?
No! What you are seeing are sensationalized news stories about the recently exposed problems with how we were sending our recycling across the world to less developed countries. If anything, we are seeing the new beginning of the U.S. recycling markets as we develop our infrastructure and policies as a reaction to other countries putting their foot down and refusing to take our garbage anymore.
And it’s a good thing our domestic markets are expanding, because we know that making new products from existing resources saves energy and water. It prevents pollution and habitat destruction. Recycling also helps us address climate change. One data point that sticks out in my mind, back when I worked as intern at the EPA, was that in 2015, through recycling, the US prevented emissions equivalent to 38.8 million passenger vehicles. We have more data points like that on our website www.recyclingreform.org.
Does recycling contribute to our economy as well as our environment?
Yes, it certainly does. Consider it this way, sending products to the landfill is a one-way street to a dead end, so there isn’t a lot of work needed to get a product there. Recycling, however, requires lot of steps, and each of those steps creates more jobs. The National Institute of Health estimates that landfilling creates one job, whereas recycling creates 36. In addition to its positive environmental benefits, the recycling industry is responsible for more than 531,500 jobs and an overall economic impact of nearly $110 billion this year.
How would sharing responsibility of recycling between municipalities and producers change recycling for the better?
It really makes intuitive sense, if you think about it. If the people who are designing product packaging have financial incentives to make sure they are putting recyclable packaging materials into the local economies then they will. If a product isn’t recyclable, the producers of the packaging would pay municipalities who manage the materials a higher fee to defray the social and environmental harms that come from landfilling and incinerating it. And, to make recycling efficient, there would be a mechanism for local governments and businesses to communicate about recyclability.
Here in Maine, we don’t have that right now. Currently, our towns have to just scramble to manage an increasing number of non-recyclable materials without any say. There’s also no way to hold businesses accountable to do their fair share—it’s really no wonder why we don’t recycle as much as we should be.
We need a law that would bring transparency and accountability to the state’s waste management systems, so that we know what’s being recycled and what’s not. Keeping track of what is being recycled is the first step to making recycling better and increasing recycling rates. I also want to add that the jurisdictions that do involve the producers in helping manage recycling (like Belgium, where recycling rates are 80%) are seeing recycling rates double or more than what we do in Maine.
That makes a lot of sense and makes me wonder why we don’t have a policy like this already. Is there anything like this coming to the Maine Legislature?
I am glad you asked, because yes, there is! Maine has an amazing opportunity to fundamentally fix recycling so that it is more effective, more sustainable, and more equitable. Last session, the Legislature unanimously adopted a resolve, LD 1431, to support municipal recycling programs. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is crafting the language of the bill right now to submit by December 16, 2019.
It’s technical name is “Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging,” and NRCM is advocating for it through our Recycling Reform for Maine Campaign. If we can implement this policy, Maine towns will never again have to close or scale back recycling because of unexpected, global forces—it’s like an insurance policy for Maine’s municipalities. And, if the producers pay into the system based on what they produce, it could really incentivize less wasteful, more recyclable packaging. As I mentioned before, many jurisdictions around the world have this policy; it’s not “outside the box,” so there’s a lot of experience we can learn from.
So, Boxy, what do you recommend Maine people and towns do right now?
This policy is really a great, “package deal” for Maine towns—pun intended! NRCM is working hard to help communities understand the benefits of this policy. I urge Maine municipalities to learn about the policy by visiting www.recyclingreform.org, and by adopting our resolution to support recycling reform.