Maine turned to recycling in the 1980s to slow down the escalation of waste disposal costs that was busting municipal budgets.
Getting residents to separate their trash and helping towns sell their recyclables were expected to meet the state’s ambitious recycling goal of 50 percent of the waste stream, and take pressure of local taxpayers.
Thirty years later, the results have been mixed. Although the state has gotten close to the 50 percent goal, it has never reached it, and recycling rates are dropping. In part, that’s because the global market for commonly recycled products, like paper and some plastics, has collapsed. In 2017, ecomaine, the trash-to-energy plant serving communities in the Portland area, received $89 a ton for paper. Last year, the price dropped to $4.
Combined with lower recycling rates, the collapse in demand means that more material is going into incinerators and landfills, driving up the costs that recycling programs were supposed to avoid. Meanwhile, changes to consumer behavior, including online shopping, are putting more packaging material than ever into the waste stream. Clearly, something is not working.
State policymakers are considering a new approach that could put recycling on the right track. It’s called an “extended producer responsibility program,” and it shifts some of the responsibility away from individual consumers and property taxpayers and onto the manufacturing companies that profit by selling packaging materials.
These companies would be required to pay as much as 80 percent of their product’s disposal costs. The idea is to create incentives for companies to reduce the amount of packaging used, and to drive innovation in methods of protecting products in shipping. Residents would still be encouraged to recycle, and municipalities would still have an incentive to reduce the waste stream, but they would not be solely responsible for the problem.
Currently, these companies have every incentive to push more plastic and paper packaging into the world and no incentive to reduce. As long as local taxpayers will bear all the disposal costs, the companies have no reason to change.
The market for recyclable products may rebound, but that’s no reason to maintain this unfair distribution of the costs.
Maine has given the current recycling regime three decades and it’s not working. It makes sense to try something else, and a producer responsibility program would be a good place to start.