Maine Is a Trailblazer in Holding Companies Accountable for Recycling Packaging Waste

Every American state should follow Maine's footsteps.

Aerial view of a city dump. The concept of pollution and excessive consumption
Anton Petrus / Getty Images

If you're like many people, you've been shopping more online during the pandemic, which means you've been putting more and more packaging materials in your recycling bin or sending non-recyclable packing materials to the landfill. All that extra material strains the budgets of municipalities as they attempt to recycle or dispose of it.

This summer, Maine became the first state in the U.S. to enact an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging law, which requires companies that produce packaging waste to help pay for the costs of its recycling and disposal. Less than a month later, Oregon followed suit. Similar bills are under consideration in several other states.

Recycling efforts make only a small dent in the tons of packaging and plastic thrown away every day. Often, those efforts do more to assuage guilt in consuming unrecycled goods than they do to solve the problem of municipal waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 12% of plastic and only 23% of paper and cardboard are recycled in the U.S. Even then, what's put in the recycle bin often doesn't actually get recycled.

Part of the problem is that in Maine it costs two-thirds more to recycle waste than to just send it to the landfill. That's especially true of packaging materials, whereas metal and glass remain cost-effective.

The other part of the problem is that much of the responsibility for recycling has been placed on consumers. Bottling and packaging manufacturers have spent decades shifting the responsibility for recycling away from themselves and onto consumers, ever since 1971, when they launched the notorious “Crying Indian” advertisement that focused attention on littering and away from bottling and packaging manufacturers. British Petroleum (now BP) took the same approach when it promoted the idea of a consumer's carbon footprint in order to steer attention away from the fossil-fuel industry.

In shifting the responsibility for recycling and disposal back onto producers, Maine's EPR for packaging law is intended to increase recycling and encourage more sustainable packaging—in short, recycle more and produce less. 

EPR laws for packaging run parallel with bans on single-use plastic bags, which have been enacted by more and more countries and municipalities. They both follow the logic that there are far fewer producers of packaging and recyclable goods than there are consumers, so legislative solutions that stop the problem at the source are a lot simpler than getting everyone to change their behaviors. 

Maine's municipalities spend between $16 million and $17.5 million annually to handle packaging waste, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The law requires packaging producers to reimburse municipalities for the cost of recycling materials associated with the products they sell. The law will exempt small businesses, nonprofits, and farmers from selling perishable foods. 

Similar laws already exist in the U.S. for the safe disposal of medications, electronic waste, paints, refrigerants, and other products. Many large-scale producers already must comply with similar EPR laws for packaging that are already on the books in over 40 countries, including Canada, smoothing the way for companies to conform with Maine's new legislation. 

While the laws in Oregon and Maine are similar, there are differences, according to the Product Stewardship Institute, which keeps track of EPR laws. Oregon's law requires producers to pay for one-quarter of recycling costs, while Maine's law requires them to pay for all recycling costs.

This is not Maine's first environmental first. Maine was the first state in the nation to require recycling efforts at retail stores, first to remove a functioning hydroelectric dam, first to ban disposable Styrofoam containers, first to require the recycling of e-waste and of mercury in thermostats, batteries, and fluorescent light bulbs, first to develop a floating offshore wind array, and first in the world to pass legislation banning “forever chemicals.”

In November, Mainers will decide whether they will be the first state to enshrine in their constitution the right to grow and consume their own food, a “right-to-food” amendment supported by organic and small-scale farmers. 

For a small state, Maine has been a pioneer in protecting the environment. Whether the rest of the nation follows Maine's lead in making packaging producers pay for recycling is still to be seen.