A recycling law passed last summer will not take effect for another four years according to the state’s regulatory timeline, disappointing sustainability advocates who would like to see the process speed up.
Maine passed the nation first extended producer-responsibility law for packaging such as plastic bags, cardboard food boxes and paper packages. It will not apply to most drinking troughs, already covered by the state bottle bill, or paint cans that are covered by a similar program.
The new program would make corporations bear the cost of disposing of hard-to-recycle packaging by reimbursing municipalities for disposal costs and investing in the state’s recycling infrastructure. Firms could reduce their costs by reducing or changing the packaging of their products sold in Maine.
But due to the large number of people, companies, local governments and organizations affected by the extensive reform, complicated regulation to enshrine the law in state regulations will not formally begin for another 18 months. Cities and towns may not see their first payments under the program until 2027.
“This particular program is difficult to implement because of its complexity and the number of interested parties,” said Paula Clark, director of the Department of Environmental Protection’s material management division. “It’s a big and robust regulatory process, (and) we expect it to take time.”
Similar programs have been used by many European countries and Canadian provinces for years, and all have much higher recycling rates than Maine, which was about 38 percent in 2019.
Advocates of producer responsibility point to higher recycling rates in those countries as evidence that the program can work to increase the amount of material Maine recycles and shield local taxpayers from disposal costs that rise and fall with commodity markets.
Proponents of recycling reform are disappointed by the length of the state-run process and say there are ways to accelerate it without cutting corners.
“The timeline DEP has put on its website is much longer than I expected; I also feel that they have given themselves a lot of hesitation, ”said Sarah Nichols, director of the Maine Sustainable Program at the Maine National Resource Council. “We have to do it carefully and well, but we have to balance that with the fact that municipalities needed help yesterday.”
Regulation is already a year behind because the state budget did not include money for two DEP employees to manage it until this year. Those employees will help with long-term reach out to program stakeholders, Clark said.
Clark said the department usually tries to preload the process of collecting inputs and answering questions about draft regulations before it begins formal regulation, which in this case is expected to happen in late 2023.
“This one in particular, because of its complexity and scale, really lends itself to such a process,” she said.
A final technical rule is expected to be ready for approval by the Board of Environmental Protection by summer 2024. Ordinarily, this would be the end of the regulatory process. In this case, however, lawmakers included the possibility of exceptions to the rule for packaging – such as child-resistant pill bottles – required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Small producers, those with less than $ 2 million in revenue, are exempt from the requirements.
Making new product exceptions means the department may need to develop “important substantive” rules that also need legislative approval, adding time and complexity to the process, Clark said. If necessary, these rules would not be finalized until 2025.
After all, the department will still have to hire a stewardship organization to administer the program, determine payments to producers, and repay municipalities. That won’t happen until 2026, according to the department’s timeline. Municipalities cannot count on payments from the program until the following year.
Nichols, of the Natural Resources Council, said there are opportunities for the department to accelerate a statewide package program. Making product exemptions to regulations could be done at the same time as the department hires a stewardship organization, she said, because most of the products would be included in the general regulations.
Taking the two things in tandem could advance the process by a year or more, Nichols said.
“There is no guarantee that there will even be a list of exemptions proposed by DEP or that it will be passed through the Legislature,” Nichols said. “That’s a little confusing to me – I don’t see any logistical or any real reason why that should be part of the timeline, honestly.”
The annual regulatory process means that Maine’s package law will take effect about a year after Oregon, the second U.S. state to pass such a law. Colorado is set to join the club this year, and at least 20 other states are considering passing similar laws, said Dan Felton, chief executive of Ameripen, a package trading group that represents major companies such as Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Dow Chemical Co. . and toilet paper producer Kimberly-Clark.
There is no set model for producer responsibility programs offered in other states, but many are more similar to the laws in Oregon and Colorado that give a larger role to private industry than in Maine, where the program is much more government-centered, Felton said. .
“What we’ve seen across the states is a lot of inconsistency,” he said. “I still wouldn’t say there’s a model out there.”