A patron at the Ellsworth transfer station opens the back of her car outside the facility's recycling building on Jan. 4, 2019. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democratic-led Maine Legislature has endorsed a first-in-the-nation bill that would shift some recycling and waste disposal costs from local taxpayers to producers of hard-to-recycle packaging materials.

The bill, from Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, is backed by environmental interests and the cities and towns that would draw from a new fund to bolster recycling programs, but business groups argue that it will increase the costs of essential goods, including groceries.

It is one of the landmark bills of the 2021 legislative session and has been the subject of heavy lobbying. The administration of Gov. Janet Mills signed off on changes to the bill, including a temporary exemption for businesses under $5 million in annual revenue, but she has since indicated concerns about how the bill handles disposal costs.

The Senate passed the bill in a 23-12 vote on Thursday after it cleared the House 84-59 on Wednesday night. But the upper chamber also passed a Republican-led change that would require lawmakers to approve the rules before the program gets off the ground. It faces further action in both chambers before going to the governor. 

“Currently, the cost of disposing of packaging trash is socialized among taxpayers,” Grohoski said on the House floor. “It’s time to course correct and make the cost-causers pay for the management of waste.”

The approach in the measure has been tried in Canada and European countries and is part of a long push to overhaul recycling in Maine, which has long been a national leader on the topic. The state recycled 72 percent of common containers and certain packaging materials in 2018, which was more than any other state, according to a Eunomia study.

But programs remain unevenly distributed across cities and towns. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the municipal waste stream is made up of packaging material and it costs local taxpayers $16 million or more to recycle or dispose of it. Costs have spiked in recent years amid restrictions from China and other nations, leading some places to rein in recycling programs.

Grohoski’s bill would charge companies for the costs of disposing of non-recyclable packaging material and associated recycling programs. Those companies would be able to reduce their financial burden by implementing their own recycling plans. The money would go into a fund to be used by cities and towns to expand or establish recycling programs.

Opponents, led by powerful business interests including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and other groups representing the retail and hospitality industries, say the bill would be overly burdensome for the companies managing the material at a time when the economy is unevenly recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.

“The first state to do this needs to do it well and this legislation is not that,” said House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford. “This bill should give us all pause.”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...