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Maine’s New Law Will Finally Make Companies Pay for Recycling

Gizmodo logo Gizmodo 7/22/2021 Molly Taft
a pile of snow next to a sign: A truck pulls up to a bottle redemption center in Maine. © Photo: Joel Page (AP) A truck pulls up to a bottle redemption center in Maine.

Extremely Maine.

Maine is forcing polluters to clean up their act—by making them pay to recycle their waste. On Tuesday, Gov. Janet Mills a groundbreaking new law that makes the state the first in the country to shift the burden from consumers to producers for the waste they create, in hopes that it will help the state recycle more of its trash.

“It’s really designed to tackle our waste crisis, get us to finally reach our goal of recycling 50% of our waste which we set back in 1989 and have never reached,” Sarah Nichols, Sustainable Maine Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, told News Center Maine. “Now with this law, there’s going to be more clarity, more incentives to have more clear labeling on a package to help consumers put things in the right bin. In some communities, it’ll be the difference between having a recycling program and not.”

Recycling in the U.S. is incredibly broken—partially because of the way it was designed. In the 1970s, when lawmakers were first considering how to implement ways to manage the growing trash problem, plastic producers and associated industries set to work quashing any legislation that would have mandated they take responsibility for the waste they were creating. They coupled that with big public campaigns that encouraged recycling—but as an individual act of responsibility on the consumer, a way that people could make their communities better by taking ownership of their litter. Unsurprisingly, Big Oil, which saw a limitless customer in the plastics industry, joined in on the fun: internal documents show that the industry has known for decades that plastic recycling would never really work on a large scale, but oil and gas companies kept pushing it as a solution. 

The system has only broken down more in the intervening years, and cost society millions. Recycling the current way means that in Maine alone, taxpayers shovel out about $6 million a year just to get rid of the stuff corporations foist on us. This setup ensures there are no incentives for companies to change their packaging techniques or punishments for excessive waste (where’s the equivalent of the Hague for packing peanuts?).

The new law will establish a nonprofit group, overseen by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, that will essentially become the big boss of recycling in Maine. Producers will pay money to this nonprofit group based on the cost of recycling packaging associated with the products that they sell in Maine. The group will then pay back towns and counties, which before had to tap into taxpayer dollars for their recycling programs, for the cost of recycling all that stuff. The new system will also streamline what is recyclable, eliminating confusing mandates between different cities about what is salvageable and what is not.

“We’ll finally have some uniformity around the state with what’s recyclable and what’s not,” Nichols told News Center Maine. “People are confused and when people are confused they put something in the bin that isn’t recyclable that they think is and then that brings down the value of all the recycling. It’s a disaster.”

The law is designed to give small businesses some leeway, too. Companies making less than $2 million per year or those that produce less than a ton of waste annually don’t have to pay.

Maine’s new law looks like it could be a tipping point for other states grappling with their own broken recycling systems. A dozen states across the country are reportedly considering similar legislation; Oregon’s own version passed the state House and Senate last month and is currently on the governor’s desk for signing. These states have models for these big changes to how recycling works: South Korea, Japan, several countries in Europe, and five provinces in Canada all have collection programs similar to the new one in Maine. Statistics show that each EU country with this kind of program has recycling rates between 60% and 85%.

This big change for Maine comes right as a 2019 ban on styrofoam food containers goes into effect. With any luck, trash in the state may look a whole lot different in a few years.

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