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07 • 13 • 2021

Maine Polluters Pay

By Melissa Gates

Maine becomes the first U.S. state to adopt an extended producer responsibility for packaging law

Maine’s Governor Janet Mills signed the first extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging law in the United States into law on July 12, 2021, marking a paradigm-shifting move that will dramatically decrease single-use plastic and wasteful packaging while improving our broken recycling system.

The effort, led by the state-based environmental nonprofit organization the Natural Resources Council of Maine, was hard-fought by a strong coalition of partners in Maine, including the Surfrider Foundation Maine Chapter, as well as allies from all over the world working together to share expertise and build support to pushback against big corporate polluters.

Maine passed a law decades ago establishing an unattained 50% recycling goal, but like many other states across the nation, Maine has been struggling to maintain current recycling recovery rates.

The problem surfaced when our fragmented U.S. recycling system was exposed, as nations that had previously accepted damaged materials intended for recycling from our country began refusing them. This disrupted our system and forced the U.S. to take accountability for the management of its own recyclable materials.

The upset in the system also sent recycling rates across the nation into a downward spiral.

While Maine was well prepared when the recycling market disruption occurred, having implemented one of the nation’s first bottle bills in 1978, and passing its statewide single-use bag and foam foodware bans in 2019, due to the complexity and cost of overhauling the entire recycling system many Maine municipalities in charge of local recycling programs were forced into choosing between raising local taxes or gutting recycling programs. 

In fact, many recycling centers across the nation were forced to close their doors or significantly reduce the types of plastic and other materials local residents could divert from the trash by recycling. What did not decrease was the amount of single-use plastic and excessive packaging being disposed of.

The result? Less items accepted for recycling and more junk to bury or burn at taxpayer expense.

This prompted waste managers to look into what was causing the plastic and trash pollution problems. What was identified was not a lack of public interest in recycling but rather an issue with the sheer volume of waste from the single-use plastic and packaging that is stocked on our shelves for sale in the first place, a vast majority of which cannot be locally recycled.

The solution? Continued bans and fees on single-use plastic and packaging to get us back to reuse habits, coupled with EPR for packaging laws.

EPR is a proven ‘polluter pays’ system that’s been working in the European Union and Canada for decades to decrease wasteful packaging and increase reuse and recycling rates. Reduction is achieved through creating monetary incentives for companies that manufacture products – the producers – to use sustainable, non-toxic materials that are refillable or reusable as a priority, or compostable or recyclable as a last-ditch effort rather than materials like single-use plastic and packaging that are often destined to be buried or burned. EPR replaces the current system of bury or burn as the least expensive options by requiring producers to pay more for that type of material handling. With EPR, producers are on the hook for paying to manage waste from their product packaging, which in turn motivates them to rethink packaging with their pocketbooks and the planet top of mind.

Perhaps the ugliest of truths exposed about our nation’s use of excessive packaging and single-use plastic is how it negatively and disproportionately impacts communities of color. Toxic facilities that produce and process fossil fuels and chemicals to make plastic, as well as those that handle burning trash and plastics that cannot be locally recycled, are predominantly located in communities of color across the U.S. This positions plastic pollution not only as an environmental nightmare but also as a barrier to racial and environmental justice, as people who live near the toxic facilities used to make and handle plastics bear the brunt of the resulting pollution.

EPR will result in less plastic used in packaging, as it will be less expensive for producers to use non-plastic materials that are ocean-friendly, and this will also result in greater environmental justice.

While recycling is an important key to solving our plastic pollution problem, it is not a standalone approach. We cannot recycle, educate, or even repackage our way out of our plastic pollution crisis. To stop plastic pollution, we must stop making plastic. 

Maine is leading the way to reduce the amount of single-use plastic and packaging used. Through making smart personal choices and advocating for ban/fee laws and policies, while concurrently advancing EPR to improve packaging design, recyclability, and processes, we can all help achieve our shared goals of less waste and less plastic pollution, and increased environmental and racial justice.

YOU can help by engaging with your local Surfrider Foundation chapter or club on our plastic pollution programs and campaigns and participating in our action alert to pass the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021.