By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
If reality reflected state law, Mainers today would recycle and compost at least half their solid waste. They would have reached that threshold in 2009.
Instead, Maine’s recycling rate has remained stubbornly close to 40 percent for years, with no sustained progress to speak of. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection calculated the state’s recycling rate at 42 percent in 2012, exactly where it was in 1997. A substantial portion of the trash could have been composted or recycled.
Something must happen to end Maine’s recycling stagnation.
The question before the Maine Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee this week is this: Is it worth it to scale back one successful recycling program in the hope of contributing to the success of others?
A bill up for a public hearing Thursday, LD 1204, proposes the Maine Recycling Fund, which would collect, perhaps, more than $300,000 per year for six years and award grants to towns and cities. They could spend the money on new infrastructure or upgrades to existing infrastructure that could boost their recycling.
The new and upgraded infrastructure — and the money for it — certainly is part of the answer to get Mainers to recycle more. A number of Maine towns, especially rural towns, lack equipment that can help residents and businesses significantly boost recycling. Perhaps a town or group of towns need a truck to haul away recyclables, a composting facility at the local transfer station or a compactor to compress and bale recycled paper, making it cheaper to transport to a processing center.
We’re fully on board with creating a sizable fund to help towns and cities make the investments they need to recycle more. We’re less sure about the funding source.
Maine has one of the most comprehensive and successful bottle redemption programs in the nation. Maine recycles more beverage containers per capita than any other state through a program that has been in place since the 1970s. The prospect of earning back the 5- or 15-cent deposit acts as a powerful incentive. Mainers redeem 80 to 90 percent of the billion or so beverage containers they buy each year.
LD 1204 proposes to remove the largest containers from Maine’s bottle bill, though it’s still an open question where lawmakers will draw the line. As written, the legislation removes all containers larger than 32 ounces — essentially, 1-liter containers and anything larger — but lawmakers could settle on a larger size, such as 46 ounces or 62 ounces. The result would be the transfer of less than 10 percent of beverage containers from one waste system, with 80 to 90 percent recycling success to one with 40 percent success.
In exchange, Maine’s beverage bottlers or distributors would pay a half-cent per bottle into the recycling fund for six years. That’s less than the 3.5 to 4 cents per bottle they pay redemption centers for collecting returnables, meaning the bill would absolve them of much of the responsibility of stewarding their products through the waste stream they’ve held for decades.
Lawmakers ought to think carefully before changing Maine’s bottle bill. If they tap the redemption program as a funding source, they ought to raise the per-bottle amount distributors pay, and they shouldn’t stop the payments after six years. If Maine commits to a recycling fund, it should make a sustained and substantial commitment. Part of that sustained commitment could be new staff at the Department of Environmental Protection who work with towns and cities on setting up and optimizing recycling programs.
But there are other funding sources lawmakers should explore. Over the past five years, nearly $1.7 million in bottle deposits on average have gone unclaimed each year. It’s money lawmakers use to balance the budget, but the fund — or part of it — could be earmarked for waste reduction.
Another bill before lawmakers, LD 947, offers another funding source worthy of exploration. The bill proposes removing exemptions in law that keep many towns and cities from paying $2 per ton of solid waste they put in landfills. In addition to funding new recycling infrastructure, the fee would act as an incentive to divert as much waste as possible from the landfill. What makes it worth exploring is that it doesn’t sacrifice a successful, decades-old recycling program in hopes of helping another.