Though there’s universal agreement that recycling is a very good thing, there’s a big problem associated with it: it’s not cheap – and it’s only become more expensive.
For instance, up until 2018, China was actually responsible for purchasing most U.S. recyclables. Then, it banned that import. The result was a 50 percent drop in revenue from this U.S. export. According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, it led to a loss of about $400 million to the local municipalities that relied on this export as revenue for funding recycling programs. And as a result of this, many municipalities discontinued curbside recycling programs altogether. Many who didn’t significantly downgraded them to offset the revenue loss.
This has all presented quite a conundrum. Without recycling opportunities, all waste is being diverted to landfills in said municipalities, overcrowding them and placing greater strain on the environment.
But Maine could have the answer. According to a law that has recently been passed in the state, companies that produce significant waste from packaging will fund their recycling centers by paying into a fund that will reimburse municipalities. According to its sponsor, State Representative Nicole Grohoski, this extended producer responsibility will hold manufacturers more accountable and aim to do some good with those that produce excessive waste. It could also have a trickle down effect that would encourage manufacturers to think with a more innovative mindset and develop products that require less packaging waste or packaging made from recyclable or renewable materials.
The law applies to all manufacturers – from local family-owned shops to big firms like Amazon. However, the one downside is that it may still take years before it becomes reality, largely because the state now has to set rules and guidelines around the law. For instance, what materials will manufacturers have to pay into the fund for? How are they gauged based on waste? What will the costs be? For a state that needs recycling now, waiting several years for this to take effect could be a problem.
Many also worry that these costs will just be passed along to the customer via higher prices once it does go into effect. Some estimates indicate that a family of four could pay up to $60 more per year for goods based on retailers having to account for extended producer responsibility costs.
But there seems to be more in favor than opposed to this new law. And big companies like Coca-Cola, Walmart and Unilever are among those that support it and have committed to solving the packaging waste problem. It’s an interesting law that could gain momentum elsewhere if it has success in Maine.
There’s no question that the U.S. has a recycling problem. Could a law that punishes the biggest offenders by making them pay for recycling expenses help do some universal good? We’re all watching Maine to find out.