A legislative debate in Maine over an extended producer responsibility plan that could slap fees on packaging to fund recycling is drawing a lot of interest from the plastics industry, as well as some concern it could be a "blank check" for companies to pay.
Lawmakers in Maine are giving serious consideration to two different versions of EPR that, if adopted, would make it the first U.S. state with a packaging EPR system like that currently seen in Canadian provinces and several dozen countries.
A parade of industry associations, including the American Chemistry Council and the Flexible Packaging Association, came before a marathon five-hour online hearing May 10 to urge state legislators to adopt one proposal, known as LD-1471.
They said their industry-backed plan would give companies a strong say in designing any plan they would be expected to provide significant funding for.
But environmental groups, local governments and some legislators favored another bill, LD-1541, that would give the state government more control.
They argue more government oversight and target setting is needed to achieve the much higher recycling rates from EPR in places like Quebec and British Columbia.
It was a spirited debate over how best to structure an EPR system.
As political pressure has grown around recycling and plastics in the environment, industry groups including ACC and FPA have in recent months announced formal support for EPR programs, sometimes calling it "shared responsibility."
It is a significant shift in industry policy toward concepts embraced by environmental groups, but the Maine debate is also putting into focus that big gaps remain in how the different sides define a good EPR program.
FPA President and CEO Alison Keane testified at the hearing that her group favors LD-1471 because it gives companies much more control over designing any recycling system, since companies will be asked to pay more.
"LD-1541 does little to nothing to increase recycling or packaging and only subsidizes current recycling and solid waste disposal infrastructure in Maine," FPA said in written comments. "While it does this under the guise of [EPR], it is really just a Department of Environmental Protection program, that will be run by a government contractor who will collect money from producers and disperse that money to current municipal solid waste programs."
Several large plastic packaging firms also came out in support of LD-1471, with bagmaker Novolex and packaging firm ProAmpac Holdings Inc. submitting written comments to lawmakers.
Ameripen, a material-neutral advocacy group for the packaging industry that includes many plastics companies, told the hearing before Maine's Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources that LD-1471 is closer to the Canadian model and one under consideration in New York's state Legislature.
"We think it's important to have a collaborative solution vs. one that's a contentious rule-making," said Andy Hackman, a lobbyist with Ameripen. "We've presented 1471 … in truly a good faith effort."
But he also later urged lawmakers to consider melding the two bills and said it remains unclear what the ultimate cost of any EPR program would be.
"We believe there are good approaches in both and hope the committee would consider ideas from both pieces of legislation," Hackman said.
Joshua Baca, ACC's vice president of its plastics division, said his group believes the industry-backed bill would lead to more of a "shared responsibility" approach.
He said the legislation also supported chemical or advanced recycling technologies in helping to expand recycling in Maine, a key policy priority for ACC.
The Plastics Industry Association, for its part, said it opposed LD-1541 and was officially neutral on LD-1471, but it said it sees the latter as better structured to create public-private partnerships to boost recycling.
"The structure of LD-1541 amounts to a blank check for ongoing operational costs for municipalities," said Matt Seaholm, the group's vice president of government affairs.