How Maine is transforming who pays for recycling

For years, Americans have been encouraged to recycle, but global changes to the market for recycled material has led to a realization that just because that symbol is on the package or it’s placed in a blue bin, doesn't necessarily mean a used product will go on to have a second life. Hari Sreenivasan reports from Maine on a new law - the first in the nation - that advocates are hoping transforms the way the state recycles.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For decades, Americans have been encouraged to recycle. The ubiquitous triangle of arrows can be found on almost everything. For more than a generation, many of us have separated our trash from what goes in those blue recycling bins.

    But in recent years, there has been a realization that just because that symbol is on the package, or just because you put it in the bin, it does not necessarily mean those products are going to have a second life.

    In the wake of global changes to the market for recycled material, lawmakers here in Maine passed a new law that advocates are hoping transforms the way the state recycles.

    As in small towns all over Maine, residents trickle into the recycling center in Ellsworth throwing boxes in one place, tin, aluminum, and some plastic containers into separate bins. But as in many places around the country, what is being collected here has changed, in large part because of a decision made on the other side of the world.

    In 2018, China stopped taking most recycled material from places like the United States, citing the influx of contaminated foreign trash as an environmental hazard. Before that, China took 70 percent of America's plastic recycling alone. The decision had a huge impact all over the world, recyclables piled up, and it cost more in the U.S. to process all the material. In 2019, here in Ellsworth, it led to a big change.

    Ellsworth stopped recycling glass, several types of plastic, even boxboard like this. And it's not surprising. Because according to Maine's Department of Environmental Protection, it costs 67 percent more to recycle than it does to throw something in a landfill.

  • Nicole Grohoski:

    When China said, we're not going to take your recyclable materials anymore, it was a real wakeup call. I think the low cost of sending it to China was propping up a system that was unsound.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nicole Grohoski represents Ellsworth in the Maine House of Representatives. She says the recycling change caught this coastal community off guard.

  • Nicole Grohoski:

    People had all these bins of materials that they had dutifully sorted and washed, and they came here and they saw signs that said, you know, we can't take this anymore.So they, a number of them got on the phone to me, sent me emails.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Other towns in Maine decided to scrap their recycling programs altogether after the cost of recycling got too high.

  • Nicole Grohoski:

    If you work very hard to sort your recycling and there is nowhere to collect it and then ultimately actually recycle it, then that's a really deflating feeling. The outcome is not within the control of you or I as individuals.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So representative Grohoski sponsored a bill to shift the cost of recycling from municipalities, to the producers who decide what packaging they use.

  • Nicole Grohoski (JUNE 16, 2021):

    We can support and restore recycling programs, and reduce the property tax burden.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The bill was signed into law by governor Janet Mills in July. It's the first of its kind in the nation.

  • Nicole Grohoski:

    I think it's so critical that producers step up and take responsibility because they are the ones who are making the choices about the packaging and packaging is 40 percent of our waste stream. So if we can get a handle on that, we've really done a lot in tackling the entire problem of what do we do with our waste.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The policy is known as extended producer responsibility or EPR, and here's how it will work: Companies that make products sold in Maine will be required to pay a fee, based on how much tonnage of packaging they produce and how recyclable that packaging is. Those fees will reimburse local municipalities for the cost of recycling.

    The law will fully go into effect in 2027 and the idea is that by making producers pay, they will have an incentive to produce more packaging that can be recycled.

  • Sarah Nichols:

    We want to do it right and take our time, but we also, you know, municipalities needed help like yesterday.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Sarah Nichols is the Sustainable Maine Director at the nonprofit Natural Resources Council of Maine, and a champion of the new law.

  • Sarah Nichols:

    We're just the first domino to fall in the United States. But we can look to our neighbors. We– there's five provinces in Canada that have had this type of program in place, the entire European Union, Russia, China, Brazil. And the easiest way I can explain how or why it works so well is as an example with my kids. So they're really messy at home. And when they got old enough, I expected them to clean up their own messes. And lo and behold, there's less mess in the first place because they know they're the ones who have to clean it up.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nichols points out small businesses in Maine are exempted from the fee and many major companies publicly support the EPR concept, including Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Nestle. But there is still some anxiety around whether the law could adversely affect businesses in this small and relatively remote state.

  • Christine Cummings:

    We are at the end of the supply chain, the end of the trucking routes. And so I just hope that the businesses continue to service and provide goods to– to our storefronts

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Christine Cummings leads the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association. She says even though the bill is now law, there are a lot of unknowns for her members. One concern is that individual retailers may need to pay the fee for selling store-brand items. And that by packaging a few things like deli food, for instance, a grocery store could face a large administrative burden in complying with this new law. Cummings also worries the fee will simply be passed on to the consumer.

  • Christine Cummings:

    The cost has to come from somewhere. And so where it will boil down and ultimately come from, I don't know that some initial studies projected a potential four to six percent increase. That is concerning for the consumer.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are companies going to pass these costs on to consumers?

  • Sarah Nichols:

    You know, since these programs are already in place all over the world, we can observe their impacts on prices, on recycling rates. And what we've observed is there is no correlation between EPR for packaging programs and consumer prices. But there's a very direct and measurable increase in recycling rates and taxpayer savings.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Here in Portland, Ecomaine processes about 40,000 tons of recycling each year. It's a nonprofit that serves more than 60 Maine municipalities. But the state is still nowhere close to reaching recycling targets set more than 30 years ago. Kevin Roche is Ecomaine's general manager.

  • Kevin Roche:

    We're capturing 33 percent. What we'd like to our goal is to be a 50 percent, 50 percent of the waste stream is the state goal for recycling.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You think you'll get there?

  • Kevin Roche:

    I think we can get there with this EPR legislation to make more readily recyclable packaging.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The material is trucked here from around Southern Maine as 'single-stream,' meaning cardboard, paper, bottles, plastic, and metal are all together. It takes about three and a half minutes for this recycling to go through Ecomaine's facility. Machines separate paper and cardboard, magnets pull away metal, and an optical scanner sees and separates plastic bottles that are zooming by.

    But the system also relies on human eyes. For higher value items, like number 2 natural-colored plastic, a worker manually separates those items by hand. When China stopped taking recycling, costs went up. but Ecomaine did not cut back on what it accepted.

  • Kevin Roche:

    We paid the price with not having a home for these recyclable materials for an extended period of time. We did not trash the material at all. However, it was very expensive.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As recycling markets recovered from China's decision, and more facilities here in the US begin to process recycling, prices for some materials have stabilized, and even gone way up with increased demand. For example, last summer, Ecomaine was paying about $28 a ton to have someone haul away mixed paper like this. today, it's getting paid about $88 a ton.

  • Kevin Roche:

    Landfilling is a forever solid waste management strategy. It might be cheaper today, but over 50 and 100 years it becomes more expensive because the waste doesn't go away, it doesn't disappear from a landfill. So making sure that these recyclables are recycled through all types of markets is extremely important, and also to make sure that they're readily recyclable

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Roche hopes that Maine's recycling law will incentivize this: pushing companies to use the kind of recyclable packaging that can be easily turned into new products.

  • Kevin Roche:

    The traditional cardboard box is readily recyclable. The milk jug is readily recycled. The aluminum can is readily recyclable. The tin can is readily recyclable. But when you think of a lot of different products, you're seeing more and more packaging that is not readily recyclable and that's ending up in the waste stream in landfills.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Back in Ellsworth, representative Nicole Grohoski says she hopes that Maine can spur national change. Since the bill became law this summer, Oregon has also passed a similar law and EPR legislation has been introduced in nearly a dozen other states.

  • Nicole Grohoski:

    People are saying to me when can we get junk mail included in this policy Nicole. And I said well let's get it underway for packaging first.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It will still take several years to see how this law works on the ground. Rulemaking around details like how fees will be collected and the program will be administered starts next year. And it will be more than five years until the first payments from producers are collected.