The state of Maine recently passed a law to make big companies compensate the state for cost of recycling their packaging, which will put the burden of recycling costs on major producers, not the consumers who pay through municipal recycling programs.

The law is aimed at companies including Amazon, Walmart, Proctor & Gamble and other major producers and could make manufacturers rethink the materials they use in packaging and just how much – or how little – packaging they can get by with in a product. 

This idea has merit for many reasons: Markets for recyclable materials have dried up, after China stopped buying U.S. recyclables in 2018; producing more packaging than is really necessary is an energy waster and puts more material into the waste stream; and many municipal recycling programs in Massachusetts are facing rapidly rising costs, shrinking markets and huge increases in the quantity of materials meant for recycling since the pandemic began.

The problem has only grown in the last year and a half. The buying habits of many people shifted during the pandemic to the convenience of online shopping and home delivery. This shift is unlikely to change, as seen in the number of cardboard boxes put at curbside on recycling day bearing Amazon, Walmart and other logos. 

In every state we’re talking big numbers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated Americans tossed more than 82 million tons of packaging and containers in 2018, with much of that going into landfills or incinerators. 

The rationale behind Maine’s law mandating big companies pay the cost of recycling is that is that it would defray the expense of recycling and it might induce manufacturers to cut back on packaging materials.

It’s hardly a novel idea. These types of producer responsibility laws have been in place in some European countries for years, leading to major manufacturers redesigning their packaging to comply. The same could happen in this country if more states get on board.

Bills filed in both the Massachusetts House and Senate appear to follow Maine’s lead; almost a dozen other states, including Connecticut, Oregon and California, are considering similar action that would put the burden on manufacturers to cut back on packaging and to make sure the packaging they use is recyclable. 

In 2019, Conservation Law Foundation was advocating for an extended producer bill in Massachusetts and elsewhere, noting, “Municipalities have little power to control the barrage of materials flooding the commonwealth but are responsible for managing recycling and disposal.”

So what could be the downside to a law that puts the burden on big companies to pay the cost of recycling their packaging? Opponents say the cost will just be passed on to consumers with higher prices for products, but the changes seen in some European countries and Canada don’t support that.

One thing that putting the cost burden on producers doesn’t do is change Americans’ consumer habits – and that is essential to help reduce waste and pollution. 

The best estimates point to just over 30% of recyclable items in single family homes actually being recovered, which means big opportunities to recycle more material and – more importantly – reduce how much stuff we buy. 

Only a combination of better participation in local recycling programs, a major reduction in packaging by big companies and an overall reduction in what we buy and either throw away or recycle will get us on the right track. 

Massachusetts should follow Maine’s lead to pass legislation to put the burden on big companies to pay for recycling their packaging. That’s one more important step along the road to sustainability.

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