Anya Fetcher

There’s no escape from plastic.

Look around your kitchen, walk along the Androscoggin River, or even sail miles out into the Gulf of Maine, and you’ll likely find yourself in the presence of plastic waste.

The U.S. produces enough plastic waste every 16 hours to fill the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. We eat about a credit card’s worth of plastic every week because microplastics are so omnipresent in our environment. If our waste patterns continue, by 2050 the oceans could have more plastic than fish.

How did it get this way?

It’s not because people like us have been clamoring for more plastic in our lives. And yet, it’s become nearly impossible to avoid plastic in packaging and consumer products.

What makes matters worse is that even if you try to recycle that plastic — dutifully checking the number in the triangle on the bottom of the package, making sure your city or town accepts it for recycling — there’s still a chance that it will ultimately wind up as waste. Less than 9% of all plastic gets recycled.


It’s easy to blame the plastic waste crisis on litterbugs or people who don’t recycle. Easy, but wrong.

The real responsibility for the plastics crisis lies with the companies that manufacture these products in the first place.

Product manufacturers don’t use plastic because consumers demand it; they use it because it’s cheaper than the alternatives.

In reality, though, plastic only seems inexpensive, because product manufacturers don’t have to absorb the enormous costs their choices inflict on the rest of us. Producers don’t have to pay for collecting and transporting the trash their products become. They don’t have to pay employees to pick up plastic litter left in parks and at beaches. And they don’t have to pay the public health costs caused by pollution from plastic trash dumped into incinerators and landfills.

As long as producers’ responsibility for their products ends the moment they’re shipped away, they are going to keep on making disposable plastic junk.

Thankfully, there is a solution — one that’s been tried and tested around the world for decades: producer responsibility laws. Currently, Maine has an opportunity to pass one of these laws with LD 1541, An Act to Support and Improve Municipal Recycling Programs and Save Taxpayer Money.


Under LD 1541, the heavy burden of plastic pollution shifts to large corporations — the producers — who would reimburse Maine’s municipalities for the net costs of recycling and landfilling their wasteful packaging materials.

Many of us are already familiar with producer responsibility programs for hazardous products such as batteries, paint, mercury thermostats, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. Maine and dozens of other states already have programs in place for these items.

Perhaps the most well-known producer responsibility programs are container deposit laws, which are in place in 10 states with the broadest version here in Maine. Customers pay a deposit of a few cents when they buy beverages, which they get back when bottles or cans are returned at a redemption center. These programs are widely popular, and they work — around 60% of beverage containers in states with a bottle bill are recycled, compared to 24% in states without one.

Producer responsibility programs work because they change the incentives that make wastefulness so cheap. When that shifts, manufacturers tend to make different choices when designing those products in the first place. They make them more reusable, repairable, recyclable and resilient.

Adopting producer responsibility programs for single-use packaging would help us to get a handle on the ever-growing tide of plastics. Producer-funded recycling programs boast recycling rates that are double taxpayer-funded models. Maine could finally reach its long-established 50% recycling goal, which would reduce as much carbon pollution as taking 166,000 cars off the road.

Along with Maine, 11 U.S. states are actively considering programs. Should the Maine Legislature choose to support LD 1541, we could claim bragging rights for yet another “first in the nation” title. Then we could cheer on the states that follow our lead.

For decades, producers have been filling the world with so much plastic that it’s become virtually inescapable. They’ve done this while passing the costs and blame on to individuals and communities. Maine can stop this rising tide by putting the responsibility for addressing this crisis where it belongs.

Anya Fetcher is the state director of Environment Maine, a nonprofit organization that works to protect clean water, clean air, wildlife and open spaces, and a livable climate. Read the organization’s recent report, Break the Waste Cycle, for more information on producer responsibility.

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