A number of communities in Maine have restricted or abandoned their recycling programs in response to changes in the global market for recyclables. These changes have prompted the state’s policymakers to issue Resolve HP 1041 “To Support Municipal Recycling Programs." The resolve asks the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to draft extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation to help fund the cost of recycling common household packaging.
The resolve notes that packaging accounts for 30 to 40 percent by weight of materials managed through Maine’s waste management programs, with taxpayers bearing the sole responsibility for funding these programs. Taxpayers spend an estimated $16 million to $17 million annually to finance the management of end-of-life packaging in the state.
“There is a need to incentivize investment in infrastructure and education and to improve the recyclability of materials produced,” David Madore, director of communications, education and outreach/legislative liaison for the Maine DEP, says. “One of the big problems with recycling is that much packaging material is not readily recyclable: It is made of multiple materials that are difficult to separate, it is shaped or labeled in such a way that it cannot be properly sorted by the vast majority of the country’s MRFs (material recovery facilities) or it is made of an uncommonly used material so that, even if one can sort it properly, the storage time required to collect enough material to market makes its recycling uneconomical. This is one of the main reasons for involving the manufacturer: The problem is the material produced and the manufacturer is the entity that controls production. The resolve includes explicit direction to include incentives for recyclability, recycled content and discourage toxics.”
Madore says the DEP is in the process of gathering information from stakeholders and other interested parties, with draft legislation due to the legislature by Dec. 15.
Declining markets and evolving material streams
According to the “Maine Materials Management Plan: State Solid Waste Management and Recycling Plan 2019 Update,” released in January 2019, “the goal of the state’s waste materials management [program] is to support the development of a sustainable, economically viable system that directs the resources inherent in waste materials into a ‘circular economy’ while protecting public health and the environment. Objectives to help achieve this goal include diverting materials from disposal to beneficial use and recycling, supporting design of products and packaging to have recycling value at the end of life and conserving landfill capacity to minimize the need for development of new capacity.”
While 2018 figures were not available at the time the report was released, it notes that Maine likely would experience a drop in its MSW (municipal solid waste) recycling rate in 2018 compared to 2017,” which it attributes to “the closure of markets in China to fiber (various grades of cardboard and paper) and plastics recycling streams” that began in January 2018. With China no longer being a viable market for imported recyclables, supply has outstripped demand, leading to declining values for recyclables.
The report adds, “Compounding this negative economic impact, existing markets outside of China generally have higher quality specifications, causing materials recovery facilities to invest more time and labor in sorting single-stream recycling to create bales of materials acceptable to these available markets.”
Additionally, product packaging and information media have evolved, significantly changing the composition of the recycling stream, the report notes, with newspapers decreasing and flexible packaging and cardboard increasing.
Incentivizing recyclability and recycled content
With this information in mind, Maine policymakers issued the resolve that requires the Maine DEP “to develop proposed legislation to establish a new product stewardship program requiring producers of packaging to assist Maine municipalities in managing and financing packaging waste disposal and recycling programs in the state.”
Additionally, the proposed legislation should incentivize packaging producers to design their products to be recyclable or to be made with recycled content to strengthen recycling markets.
The legislation also should establish a nonprofit stewardship organization of packing producers and cover at least 80 percent of the cost of recycling packaging material sold in the state that is required to be recycled and invest in waste reduction and recycling education and infrastructure.
According to the resolve, producers would pay higher fees for packaging that is not readily recyclable, is made of multiple materials or is toxic, while those that produce packaging made of higher value reusable components and that contain higher percentages of recycled content would pay lower fees.