Maine is the first state in the nation to hold big corporations and brands accountable for the plastic waste and packaging they have created. Our new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging law (LD 1541) will increase recycling rates, reduce packaging pollution, and save taxpayers money.
This is a very big deal, folks. And not because we’re the first, but because it will reform a broken, piece-meal approach to managing household waste by creating a fairer system that can spark innovation in packaging design and make recycling easier and more cost-effective. Maine people have spoken loud and clear: the time has come for corporations to take responsibility for the waste they create.
“Without such policies, packaging collection and recycling is unlikely to be meaningfully scaled and tens of millions of tonnes of packaging will continue to end up in the environment every year.”— Ellen MacArthur Foundation Statement of Support for EPR, endorsed by more than 100 leading businesses.
EPR for Packaging laws have proven to work all over the world for decades, including the European Union and most of the Canadian provinces—and we know from the experience in these places that Mainers will soon be reaping the benefits of this tried-and-true policy.
Now that that the EPR for Packaging bill (LD 1541) has been signed into law, what can Maine people and communities expect to happen next?
What is Extended Producer Responsibility?
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a long-winded name for a special type of waste management policy created to safely and responsibly dispose of difficult-to-recycle products and materials. EPR programs differ from traditional recycling programs, which are run and funded by municipal governments. Instead, EPR shifts the costs of dealing with difficult types of waste from town governments already stretched thin, to manufacturers and corporations, that have control over the safety and recyclability of the products they make and sell.
EPR programs were developed to target the most toxic and problematic products in our waste stream. In the United States alone, there are 120 EPR programs covering 14 product categories in 33 states plus Washington, D.C.
Maine already has eight EPR laws on the books, including for electronic waste, mercury-containing products, and unused paint. The state has created a methodical way of determining whether a product category is ripe for EPR, because it’s a policy of our state to move more materials into EPR programs if they meet even one of the five criteria outlined in our Product Stewardship Framework Law. This new law will expand Maine’s EPR programs to cover packaging, much of it plastic, which has become a major source of confusion and rising costs for Maine’s cities and towns.
How Will EPR for Packaging Help Maine?
Maine’s municipalities are dealing with a flood of packaging waste, much of which is not recyclable—and people are rightfully confused about what do with it all. What is able to be collected for recycling in one town may not be in another, making statewide consumer education and labeling very difficult.
Towns and property taxpayers have no control over the packaging entering their communities, or influence in recycling markets, and they just foot the bill if they can afford it. Here are some distressing facts:
- In 1989, Maine set a goal to recycle 50% of our waste—a goal our state has never met. It is estimated that our recycling collection rate is about 36% and falling. Meanwhile, disposal is on the rise.
- Towns are struggling to maintain recycling programs due to cost; on average it costs 67% more to recycle than dispose of waste, which has resulted in program cutbacks, closures, or property tax increases.
- Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) estimated in a 2019 report that it costs our towns between $16 million and $17.5 million to manage packaging waste through recycling or disposal.
Maine’s new EPR for Packaging law targets the root of our problems because it 1) provides incentives for producers and big corporations to make less waste and more eco-friendly packaging; 2) takes the financial burden off taxpayers—so towns will no longer have to cut programs or raise taxes due to recycling costs, and 3) creates a uniform list of materials collected in each participating municipal recycling program.
In other parts of the world, EPR for Packaging has proven to steadily increase recycling rates over time, led to changes in packaging design, and saved a lot of taxpayer money. That’s what we can expect to happen in Maine, too.
How Will EPR for Packaging Work?
Like with most EPR programs, a new Stewardship Organization (SO) is formed to administer the program, track progress toward goals, and report back to the State. (Side note: one of the unsung heroes of the policy is the incredible amount of data that will be collected; we will finally know what material is being sold into the state, whether it was recyclable and got collected and recycled, and where the biggest gaps in our system are so that we can improve inefficiencies over time.)
In a nutshell, producers pay annual fees to the SO that are based on the amount and type of packaging they sell into Maine. Then the SO reimburses municipalities annually for the costs they have incurred because of that packaging. All participating municipalities will have a minimum list of recyclables that they have to take to be eligible for reimbursement, which will make statewide education easier. Plus, there will be extra funds for investments in waste reduction and recycling education and infrastructure in cities and towns across Maine.
What Packaging Do Producers Have to Pay For?
The packaging included in the program is essentially all the stuff you end up with at home and your town must manage, whether it’s recyclable or not—things like Amazon boxes and pouches, yogurt tubs, bread bags, take-out food containers, packaging on toys and electronics, etc. All annual per-ton fees paid by producers to the stewardship organization are only for those packaging materials—not the stuff they take back on their own or sell to other states or businesses.
Much of this wasteful packaging is plastic, which contributes to climate change and pollutes our land, air and water. The fossil fuel companies that make plastic have historically worked hard to avoid doing their part to reduce waste and create less polluting products.
Who are the Producers that will be Expected to Participate?
EPR for packaging puts the responsibility of fee payments on the producers of packaging, which are brand-owners, and basically the ones who decide to put which product in which package. Like in most EPR policies, the lion’s share of the cost is covered by the biggest billion-dollar corporations—brands like Amazon, Walmart, Proctor & Gamble, Kimberly Clark, Mondelez, and others. Most of these companies already pay and participate in EPR programs elsewhere around the world.
Maine’s EPR law was specifically crafted to protect the local businesses that help drive our economy. Small businesses are exempt, as are nonprofits and small farmers of perishable food. Any business making less than $5M gross revenue is exempt for the first three years, then the threshold drops to $2M. It also exempts any producer making less than 1 ton of packaging per year and has a tiered flat-fee structure for businesses making up to 15 tons per year that enables them to bypass the fee paperwork should they choose to.
In EPR programs around the world, the fees for big corporations and brands amount to somewhere between 0 and 1% of a companies’ gross revenue, and work out to be pennies or a fraction thereof per container. The specific fee amount will be set each year to recover the costs of municipal recycling programs, so in years where the recycling markets are good and there is less packaging to manage, the fees will be lower. The stewardship organization will assist businesses in participating in the program and help them to make changes to reduce their impact.
What Does This Law Mean for Mainers?
For starters, your property taxes won’t need to pay for recycling anymore, which frees up money for your town and could help reduce the need to raise the tax rate. And, over time, you will benefit from less packaging, more recyclable packaging, and more accurate recycling instructions on your packages (Hallelujah!).
How else this will impact you may depend on what your town currently does for recycling—if you live in a town that has a robust recycling program with curbside pick-up, that probably won’t change. But if your town has a pretty minimal or no recycling program, or limited options for convenient recycling, then you can expect that to change for the better. The more material that your town collects through recycling and waste reduction, the more money they will save.
What are the Next Steps?
Now that the EPR for Packaging bill has been signed into law by Governor Janet Mills, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will initiate rulemaking by December 2023. Rulemaking is a public stakeholder process that will fill in the details of the program’s creation and implementation, addressing issues such as producer payment schedules, what the minimum list of recyclables is, developing a process for determining municipal reimbursement payments, setting of specific program goals and targets, and how audits of waste, recycling, and litter in Maine will be done.
Then, the Maine DEP will hire a stewardship organization through a RFP process. After that contract is signed, it will be one year before the fees are collected and reimbursement to municipalities are made. According to this timeline by Maine DEP, we can expect municipalities to receive those first payments by 2027.
The stewardship organization will deliver annual progress reports to the DEP. The DEP in turn reports back to the Legislature’s Joint Environment and Natural Resources Committee in their regular product stewardship report. DEP can also make recommendations to the Legislature for ways to improve the EPR program performance in that report.
As the organization that led the effort to bring EPR for packaging to Maine, the Natural Resources Council of Maine will be watching every step of the way to make sure the program delivers the greatest benefit to Maine’s people and environment!
—Sarah Nichols, NRCM Sustainable Maine Director