State policymakers alarmed by the growing number of Maine communities restricting or abandoning costly recycling programs will draft legislation requiring private companies to shoulder the cost of disposing of common household packaging.

The proposed measure is partially a response to the collapse of global markets for recyclables such as paper and plastic. Communities accustomed to getting paid to export low-value material to China were caught off guard last year when the national government effectively banned imports of recyclables.

Officials estimate Maine taxpayers spent at least $16 million last year to get rid of recyclables. Increased cost drove some communities to limit accepted materials and at least six towns have quit recycling altogether, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Now, waste once destined for China is piling up in landfills and incinerators here, taking Maine further from its three-decade goal of recycling half its household waste. As of 2017, the state’s recycling rate was 38 percent.

To help the state reach its goal, lawmakers this year passed a resolve that directs the DEP to draft a bill that would force packing material producers to pay at least 80 percent of disposal costs for materials that are not easily recyclable, invest in new recycling infrastructure and make products that are easier to recycle.

Sarah Lakeman, Sustainable Maine director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, thinks that an “extended producer responsibility” program for packaging would at least shield consumers from bearing the cost of swings in volatile recycling markets.

“It is a cost shift off of taxpayers, who did not create the problem, they have no control over what is designed and put in the market,” Lakeman said. “At the best, if we design it the right way, it would encourage better product design and more access to recycling.”

China’s policy move unveiled an underlying problem in the U.S. recycling industry, she said. A lot of what the U.S. was sending overseas was contaminated with household trash and other waste that ended up in foreign landfills.

“Recycling was never all that great to begin with,” Lakeman said.

Even though the recycling market is in the doldrums, Kevin Roche thinks pulling back or canceling municipal recycling programs is a terrible idea.

Roche, the director of ecomaine, a municipally-owned regional solid waste company, urges member communities to hang on and bear extra costs until the market turns around.

“We believe it is shortsighted to abandon recycling programs, and we believe it would be a huge mistake,” Roche said.

“Recycling has been cyclical, it is expected to be that way,” he said. “Over the long haul, the recycling markets have performed very well for those communities that are doing it.”

After China’s ban, the value of paper, cardboard and plastic collapsed. In 2017, ecomaine received $89 a ton for mixed paper, a combination of magazines, junk mail, glossy papers and cardboard. That fell to $4 a ton last year. Because of market constraints, ecomaine stored bales of compacted paper for months, until it found someone to buy it.

Finding customers for mixed paper is critical because the material is low-value but makes up about 65 percent of ecomaine’s entire recycling tonnage, Roche said.

Demand is up this year, but prices are still depressed – about $21 a ton for mixed paper. A sluggish market will persist until domestic demand picks up, Roche said. Some companies are adjusting manufacturing to take advantage of paper material. Last year, ND Paper, which also owns the Old Town mill, said it plans to upgrade its plant in Rumford to produce recycled pulp from mixed paper.

The “incredibly adaptive” recycling industry will adjust to new market conditions, but making up China’s former demand will take time, agreed Joe Pickard, chief economist at the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries. Before last year, China imported about one-third of U.S. recycling.

Until the market corrects, it will be tough for municipal recycling programs, Pickard said. Consumers were lulled into believing recycling is free, when the full cost was masked by the Chinese importing the dirtiest, least valuable material sometimes created by single-stream programs that commingle different recyclable materials.

“I think there was some shortsightedness in terms of the customers the municipalities were expecting to service, an unstopped growth in Chinese demand,” Pickard said.

Advocates hope that a product stewardship program could improve Maine’s recycling programs, but industry groups are opposed to the measure. Representatives from the plastics and paper industry argue similar programs in Canada and the European Union have created higher prices for consumers and inefficient bureaucracies.

Andrew Hackman, a lobbyist for AMERIPEN, a trade group representing major packing manufacturers, said the group supports taking some responsibility for recycling costs, but Maine’s proposal puts too much onus on producers.

“This resolve clearly says the entire responsibility falls to the manufacturer,” Hackman said. “We haven’t seen numbers that show that improves recycling and the material that comes in.”

The group would prefer better consumer education about recycling and added programs to reduce waste, such as pay-as-you-throw trash disposal fees.

“We believe there needs to be some element of shared responsibility,” Hackman said. “There is a baseline cost to collecting this material, we all collectively have a portion of that.”

Terry Webber, executive director of the packaging wing for the American Forest and Paper Association, said his group won’t support a packaging stewardship program.

“The opinion of our folks is that if you look at the record of those programs, they are extraordinarily good at increasing costs to consumers, but not very good at increasing recovery rates,” Webber said.

Paper products already have a recycling rate of about 68 percent and almost all cardboard is recycled, Webber said. The paper industry shouldn’t have to subsidize the cost of addressing plastic waste, the real focus of reform, he said.

“It gives our industry heartburn if fees and taxes raised from us would be used to tackle the high-priority issue right now, which is plastic,” Webber said.

The DEP has until mid-December to come up with a draft bill for the Legislature to consider next year. The resolve, L.D. 1431, was sponsored by Rep. Michael Devin, D-Newcastle, and signed by Gov. Janet Mills in May.

Maine has product stewardship requirements for items such as cellphones, mercury thermostats and switches, paint and some batteries. The state’s bottle bill, that tacks a small deposit on beverage containers, is another example, said Paula Clark, director of the materials management division at the DEP.

Department staff intend to work with both sides of the issue over the next few months before submitting a draft, Clark said.

“We are hoping to get everyone engaged on this,” she said.

The Municipal Review Committee represents 115 Maine communities in solid waste matters, Its executive director, Mike Carroll, issued the following response to the above story:

“The MRC supports the goals of the draft Resolve to promote increased recycling and to encourage and provide incentives for those involved in packaging design, manufacturing and specification to incorporate considerations of recyclability into packaging designs.

“As sponsors and hosts of Maine’s newest and most advanced recycling facility, MRC wants to ensure that the contemplated measures support and are consistent with the approach to recycling being pursued by MRC member communities, which involves recovery of materials and products from processing mixed municipal solid waste (MSW) rather than source separation.

“Any system that involves monitoring of recycling rates or payments to communities needs to account properly for the advantages of mixed MSW processing.  MRC members should not be undercompensated or penalized for achieving higher rates of diversion through use of new advanced technology at the Coastal Resources of Maine facility. Thus, monetary incentives, if any, should target impacts of packaging that is not recyclable because it cannot be processed or sorted (such as composite materials) rather than track a general level of recovery that results from decisions on collection and processing.

“The MRC will be working with the Maine DEP, MMA and other stakeholders to advance the Resolve in ways that will achieve these objectives fairly and efficiently.”

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