In this July 2016 file photo, Pedra So-Melony guides cans and bottles onto an automated sorting machine at Clynk, a supermarket based recycling company in South Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Editor’s note: Despite backing the latest version of packaging bill at a committee hearing in May, Maine Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim said on Friday, June 11, that the state has stopped short of supporting it. An original reference to the department’s support is retained in this story.

Business interests are trying to stall the momentum of a first-in-the-nation bill that would shift some local recycling costs to producers, citing a new study on Monday that found it would raise grocery bills.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, would charge large producers of food and other packaged goods for disposing of non-recyclable packaging material and related recycling programs. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection would manage the program, known as “extended producer responsibility,” and producers would pay into an independently managed fund that would go to cities and towns to begin or expand recycling programs.

It has turned into a complex debate on the economic tradeoffs at the heart of the plan. Supporters have said it could lead producers to use recyclable packaging and make the difference in whether towns can afford to have a recycling program amid rising costs, but food producers and their allies have said it would sharply increase costs to consumers.

Gov. Janet Mills’ administration has supported the measure after backing some changes including one to increase businesses exempt from the measure by raising a threshold to $5 million from $2 million. A professor at York University in Toronto warned against moving forward with the program in a study released last week, finding grocery bills could go up $32 to $59 per month with producers expected to pass down the added recycling costs.

The study estimated the volume of packaging materials that producers would need to pay for and assumed they would pass the added costs onto consumers. Supporters said other studies, including one by researcher RRS for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, found no clear correlation between such producer programs and high prices.

The idea to push the expenses of recycling packaging back onto producers has existed in Maine for several years, with an earlier bill dying last year when the Legislature adjourned because of the coronavirus pandemic. While almost a dozen other states are considering similar plans, Maine could become the first to pass such a bill. The European Union and some Canadian provinces, including New Brunswick, already have adopted extended producer responsibility programs.

But opponents said there is no evidence that the bill in its current form, will improve the recycling system, reduce local taxes or decrease the amount of packaging sent to landfills. The retail association, Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Grocers & Food Producers Association and the Retail Association of Maine plan to explain their opposition at an Augusta news conference on Tuesday.

“Maine’s economy is not large enough to single-handedly redefine the packaging market nor recycling markets,” Christine Cummings, the executive director of the grocers association, said in a statement.

A poll of 500 registered voters in Maine done in late May by the Campaign for Recycling and the Environment, an industry-backed nonprofit, found that Mainers are split about whether or not the state’s recycling system needs significant improvement or is working pretty well as is.

It also found that 64 percent of those polled oppose a state-run recycling program that would increase their costs. The proposal was most unpopular among Republicans, 86 percent of whom said they oppose it. But environmentalists and recyclers say it will offset rising recycling costs.

“It puts economic incentives where they need to be,” Sarah Nichols, sustainable Maine program director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said. Nichols said the York University study assumes wildly inflated costs that will be passed directly on to consumers, “and that’s not what we’re seeing in other places” that have the programs.

Some towns are trying to curb rising recycling costs by only taking certain items. That is the case in Ogunquit, where frustration is mounting because the town is asking residents to recycle, but also to throw more of what had been recycled into the trash instead, John Fusco, manager of the town’s transfer station, said in May testimony on the measure.

“LD 1541 seems to be a sensible way to remind manufacturers that even if their products are recyclable, it costs money to recycle them, and if they are not recyclable, they need to reduce those amounts and should help pay to get rid of it,” he said.