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Maine Among Several States Looking To Shift Recycling Costs Back To Manufacturers


Disposing of waste can be complicated. Does it go in the recycling bin or the trash? And who pays for it? That's become a hot button issue for cities across the country because those cities bear the brunt of the cost. So now lawmakers in several states, including Maine, are considering laws that would shift the recycling and disposal costs of products back to the companies that make them. It's called extended producer responsibility, or EPR. Troy Moon, the sustainability coordinator in Portland, Maine, joins us now to explain.

Good morning.

TROY MOON: Good morning.

FADEL: So walk us through some of the problems that Portland's having with this - with recycling.

MOON: Right. Well, a lot of people are aware that recycling markets have been challenged in the last few years, basically because of some changes in the international market, with China, you know, shutting the door for most products. Some places are experiencing difficulty, even moving products to the market. So costs for municipalities are rising rapidly. In some communities, the price that they have to pay to the recycling plant is more than they have to pay to dispose of their trash.

FADEL: How much does this all cost the city?

MOON: So in our case, our recycling costs have risen over $200,000 in the past year. So it's - you know, it's a pretty significant jump from zero, which - we used to be in agreement with our recycling facility that we didn't make any revenue, but we didn't have to pay any costs.

FADEL: I mean, I buy things that are packaged in plastic and cardboard. And parts of it are clean. Parts of it are dirty. And it's kind of hard to figure out how to throw it away properly. But also, how did it become the responsibility of the consumer to not only throw it out, really, but basically pay for it?

MOON: Yeah, no, that's exactly the point, I think, that, you know, Portland and the communities who are supporting the extended producer responsibility law here in Maine are trying to make. We have city employees and vehicles that go and pick it up and take it to the recycling plant and the waste energy facility. But that's - the cost is borne entirely by the local taxpayers, despite the fact that, you know, the goods that are being disposed of are produced and packaged by some of the largest brands in the world.

FADEL: Are these companies supportive of a bill like this that would put the cost on them?

MOON: No (laughter). I think, you know, it's a change here in the United States particularly. But if you look at other parts of the world, you know, all of Europe has EPR. You know, we're maybe the first state in the U.S. really pushing hard at this.

FADEL: So is the goal to get the manufacturer to change the way it packages, as well?

MOON: Absolutely. Currently, the producers, you know, lack any real incentive to make sure that the products they make are, you know, fully recyclable. They, you know, are thoughtful about the amount and type of packaging they use. You know, and if they're going to be responsible for the costs of them, they're more apt to make the cost of handling and disposing them less expensive.

FADEL: Now, Portland's the biggest city in Maine, but what about smaller cities or towns that don't have the resources Portland might have? How does it work there?

MOON: Actually, I think this type of legislation will benefit rural communities, especially on a percentage basis. A small community spends more on solid waste and recycling costs than we do. In many small communities, trash and handling waste and recycling and trash is, you know, the second-most expensive line item in their budget after, you know, the schools. So it would be a great benefit for small communities, as well.

FADEL: That was Troy Moon, sustainability coordinator of the city of Portland, Maine. Thank you so much.

MOON: Yeah, you're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BON IVER SONG, "HOLOCENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.