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Mark Draper is solid waste director for Aroostook Waste Solutions, a not-for-profit corporation jointly owned by the municipalities of Fort Fairfield, Limestone, Caribou and Presque Isle.
The market uncertainty for recycling has had a major impact on the ability of Maine towns to maintain or expand the list of materials accepted for recycling. The cyclical trends we are experiencing as solid waste managers threaten the viability of recycling because it increases the burden on property taxpayers to pay for recycling.
This problem has come to the forefront recently with a market crash when China and other countries announced they would no longer take materials from the United States. That downturn has led some municipalities in Maine to reduce recycling programs, or to suspend them altogether because of rising costs.
For example, in 2019, Aroostook Waste Solutions realized only about 60 percent of the budgeted revenue we conservatively anticipated from recycling. That lost revenue has to be made up for through lowered costs or higher fees elsewhere. And according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine’s taxpayers pay $16 million to $17.5 million per year to manage packaging waste either through recycling or disposal.
A bill being considered by the Legislature, LD 1541, would bring relief to municipal recycling programs by stabilizing income and saving taxpayers money. The bill, which has received bipartisan support, recently received majority support from the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and will head to the House of Representatives soon for a vote.
Recycling has generally been considered a municipal service that provides certain environmental benefits and while that’s true, its success is ultimately tied to, and has long been dependent upon, business forces to generate revenue from the sale of recyclable materials. A surge in packaging materials, much of it unrecyclable and driven by an increase in online purchasing, has caused confusion among Mainers trying to do the right thing and put unacceptable pressure on municipal recycling programs.
LD 1541 would implement a solution called Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging that is being used across the world to increase the effectiveness of recycling. The bill outlines a complex program that could yield significant benefits to municipal and waste management programs. It also lays out a stakeholder process that would ensure municipal input is considered as the program is developed. It also provides for voluntary participation by municipalities that can choose to either participate in the program or not.
Importantly, LD 1541 builds on what we know works here in Maine where the state has already adopted eight successful EPR programs over the past 20 years to recycle used electronic waste, old paint, and mercury thermostats. Many Mainers who visit transfer stations are likely familiar with and have used these programs to safely dispose of waste.
EPR programs work by asking companies who produce materials or packaging to share in the responsibility of managing the waste. Right now, Maine’s towns are entirely responsible for the costs associated with disposing of packaging waste, much of it plastic. Under EPR, these corporations would either help cover the cost of Maine’s recycling programs or be encouraged to create better designed packaging that can be more easily recyclable.
The bill approved by committee also protects Maine’s small businesses with exemptions that recognize they are an important part of our economy and we cannot increase the burden on them especially as we recover from the pandemic.
For these reasons, I urge lawmakers to move quickly to approve LD 1541 this Legislative session so we can immediately start building the groundwork for helping to deliver relief to cities and towns across Maine.