Save Taxpayer Money and Make Recycling More Effective
Maine’s towns and cities are struggling with rising costs of an ever-growing flood of wasteful packaging materials. This is causing confusion about what can be recycled and has forced dozens of Maine towns to cut back or cancel their recycling programs.
That’s why NRCM is collaborating with towns and elected officials across Maine to adopt a proven solution called Extended-Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging. EPR is used around the world to save money for cities and towns, increase recycling rates, and spark innovation in packaging design to reduce waste.
Big multi-national corporations are working hard to oppose EPR in Maine because they are benefiting from having taxpayers pay the costs of recycling. To reform recycling in Maine, we will need the support of Mainers across the state!
We need recycling to be effective because it saves taxpayer money, helps keep materials out of landfills, and reduces carbon pollution. Recycling also creates good-paying jobs, contributing a stronger economy.
For decades, Maine people have developed a strong recycling ethic because they want to do the right thing, but our ability to recycle into the future is being threatened. Changes in global recycling markets and the COVID-19 public health pandemic have exposed fundamental flaws in how we manage recycling in Maine and throughout the United States. We need systemic change through recycling reform if we want to keep recycling into the future.
Maine’s municipal recycling programs are struggling to survive. Thirty years ago, Maine passed a law establishing a 50% recycling goal. Despite good intentions, the state recycling rate has remained stagnant at a low 40%—and now it’s falling. Here is why:
- Cities and towns are facing rising costs because big corporations don’t pay their fair share: The cost to burn or bury many commodities is often cheaper than recycling. This can make it very difficult for municipal leaders to choose between continuing to recycle versus landfilling, even if they believe recycling is the right thing to do. Since markets fluctuate over time, this problem won’t go away without a change in funding.
- Current recycling is confusing because of poorly designed packaging: There is widespread geographic inconsistency about what can and cannot be recycled makes effective recycling education very difficult. It also causes confusion and high rates of contamination of recyclable materials, which reduces the value of the commodities. The geographic inconsistency is a result of whether or not a municipality can afford to pay for recycling collection and transportation costs.
- Packaging isn’t always designed with recycling in mind: Every day, new materials are being sold into the market with no local recycling option. There is no financial incentive or mandate for large corporate brand-owners to make a recycled or recyclable package or to help to educate consumers. There isn’t enough coordination between producers, consumers, and recyclers because it’s no one's role to ensure that happens.
- Using virgin resources to produce packaging is sometimes cheaper: In many instances, like with plastic, virgin commodities are cheaper to acquire than recycled ones. This means there is not enough demand for recycled commodities. For a material to be truly recyclable, it must have a market, and policy can help drive that market.
- Comparably low disposal costs: When municipal officials debate whether or not to keep their recycling programs, they evaluate the alternative cost of sending municipal solid waste (MSW) to a landfill or waste-to-energy facility instead. In Maine, this is often the cheaper option because of the fluctuations in the recycling markets for various commodities. If recycling were always the cheaper option, then making the right choice would be easier.
Recycling programs should not be paid for by taxpayers and municipalities who have no say in what materials they are stuck managing and paying for. Recycling is an important environmental issue that should be planned for at the design stage. To address the problems, the costs of recycling should instead be built into the system—not paid for at the end by property taxpayers.
NRCM supports a law that would reform recycling by providing a clear economic incentive for brand owners and big corporations to produce less-wasteful packaging that can be easily recycled locally. This policy approach is called “Extended-Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging.” It is already being implemented all over the world. Packaging, which includes plastic, steel, aluminum, glass, and cardboard, constitutes approximately 30% to 40% of the materials managed by weight in waste management programs in Maine.
How Shared Responsibility for Recycling Packaging in Maine would Work:
Similar to Maine’s eight existing product stewardship laws, a group of brand owners that sell packaging materials in Maine would form a producer responsibility organization (PRO) to manage the packaging they put into our communities. The PRO's primary function would be to reimburse our municipalities for the net costs of recycling their packaging and expand access to recycling for the different packaging materials:
- If municipalities have a profitable recycling program for the material type, with no net costs, then the PRO would not have to reimburse them.
- If municipalities have to pay for recycling then they would be reimbursed by the PRO for the costs of managing recyclables for the PRO.
- The PRO will have incentives to increase access to recycling for more types of materials since they will pay more if municipalities don't have a recycling program for their material type.
Recycling Reform for Maine will Make Recycling:
- More Effective. Producers of packaging materials would have a direct economic incentive to produce less-wasteful packaging that can easily and profitably be managed by municipal recycling programs. And municipalities would have a direct economic incentive to have a robust and efficient recycling program since it would no longer create a tax burden, and they could avoid disposal costs. Having shared responsibility between those who create the waste and those who manage the waste would foster recycling system improvements and enable greater participation in recycling across Maine. Making recycling more effective means significantly lowering our carbon footprint.
- More Sustainable. Our current approach to recycling is not resilient to changes in the global recycling market. Because towns and cities have to budget for recycling, when costs rise unexpectedly they may be forced stop or restrict their programs. If taxpayers no longer have to pay for recycling costs but still have to pay for disposal, then there is a strong incentive for municipalities to have a robust and long-lasting recycling program. Think of this solution as an insurance policy for Maine municipalities when global recycling markets fluctuate.
- More Equitable. Maine’s cities, towns, and taxpayers currently pay $16-$17.5 million per year to manage packaging waste. Meanwhile, more and more disposable and wasteful packaging is entering the market every day because producers have no incentive to design better packaging. This leaves taxpayers unfairly footing the bill for a problem they didn’t create. With recycling reform, taxpayers will no longer pay for the cost of recycling since the net costs of recycling would be reimbursed by a producer responsibility organization—similar to what is done in more than 40 jurisdictions around the world.
NRCM worked closely with towns, lawmakers, stakeholders, and concerned residents to from across the state to urge lawmakers to pass LD 2104, An Act to Support and Increase the Recycling of Packaging, to create an EPR for Packaging program in Maine. This law was created using the framework created by the Resolve to Support Municipal Recycling Programs that was adopted in 2019.
There was widespread support at the public hearing for the bill, and it was passed favorably by the committee. But no further action is scheduled at this time because the Legislature adjourned in mid-March due to the pandemic. We will keep you posted on next steps, because we are not giving up on passing an EPR for Packaging policy in Maine. If anything, the pandemic has shown us how fragile our recycling system really is, and created more urgency for an EPR approach.
How You Can Help Reform Recycling in Maine
- Sign the petition adding your name to the more than 1,600 Mainers who support recycling reform for Maine.
- Spread the word! Share the petition with your friends and family.
- Write to your state legislators to ask them to support LD 2104, and EPR for Packaging for Maine.
- Write a letter to the editor of your local paper in support of LD 2104, and the shift of recycling costs from taxpayers to producers of packaging.
- Contact your municipal officials. Share with them our letter asking Maine's towns and cities to adopt a resolution to support Recycling Reform for Maine.
These Maine towns have already signed on in support:
- Contact the companies that you buy from. If the products you enjoy come in non-recyclable packaging, then let them know you want them take responsibility and make changes to the design, or help with collection costs, so that you can recycle your packaging locally.
- Stay informed—Join NRCM's Action Network to receive emails when there are ways you can take action!
- Find ways to reduce and reuse your waste at home. No matter how strong our recycling programs are, we can’t lose sight of the first two Rs!
Meet Boxy McBoxface, our Recycling Reform for Maine Director. Boxy is excited to address challenges facing Maine’s recycling system & looks forward to working with your community to reform recycling in Maine! Learn more about Boxy.
Recycling Reform for Maine is a campaign to support a policy proposal to save recycling in Maine. Watch this 17-minute webinar by NRCM's Sustainable Maine team, Sarah Nichols and Chrissy Adamowicz, for an overview of Maine’s recycling problems and how this proposed policy can fix them.