Recently, two separate state laws were passed to support recycling programs for paint and mattresses. These types of laws are known generally as extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation, wherein manufacturers are required to pay fees to support recovery and recycling efforts for their products. To date, the laws have focused on products that are hazardous or have low recycling rates (e.g. batteries, mercury switches, fluorescent lamps).
At first, I was somewhat surprised to see Maine joining six other states to enact this type of law for paint. As a taxpaying resident of Portland, Maine I am allowed to drop up to 10 gallons per year of oil or enamel paint at my local recycling facility – at no charge. For latex paint, there is clear guidance on how to solidify and dispose of leftovers. A quick search revealed several other options within driving distance, most of which are free for local residents. And there are many additional facilities in Maine where consumers (including non-residents) can pay for proper disposal of paint.
In looking at the evolution of EPR it becomes clear that the driving force for the change is not just to provide access for recovery. Rather the primary incentive is to shift the cost burden from municipalities to the producer. And what will producers do? Most likely they will pass the cost along to consumers. In fact a paint law in Connecticut has resulted in a $0.75 per gallon fee for consumers. I do anticipate that paint disposal will become more accessible if every store that sells paint must also take it back, however it remains to be seen as to whether this is a cost effective solution.
Meanwhile people are studying two programs in Canada (Ontario and British Columbia) that have used this type of legislation to cover commonly recycled materials including packaging and printed materials. And there are efforts underway to look at similar legislation in the US. Our trade association is monitoring the development of these laws closely in an effort to understand how this may affect the pulp and paper industry. It is arguable that we simply don’t need EPR for paper products. The recovery rate for paper has exceeded 60% since 2009. And nearly 70% of US households have access to paper recycling facilities (either curbside or drop off).
Of course, a strong recovery rate alone doesn’t prevent a municipality from looking for ways to cut costs of recycling programs. But, for paper, municipalities should be reaping benefits as the markets for recovered paper are very strong. In fact paper markets are so competitive that roughly 40% of recovered paper is exported to meet the high demands of overseas customers.
There are still paper products destined for landfills and much effort underway to identify and expand solutions for “hard to recycle” products such as wax coated board or soiled paper (like napkins or food contaminated packing). There are a host of alternatives to recycling, including composting programs and waste-to-energy solutions. The key is to maximize recycling where possible and continue to develop a portfolio of solutions for other products or hard to reach locations.
As individuals it behooves us all to understand these issues so that we don’t see costs simply shift from our taxes to potentially end up as inflated fees levied at the store shelves. For commonly recycled materials like paper and paperboard, I believe we are best suited to rely on the market based programs that exist. Collectively we need to continue to find the best means for keeping other paper based products out of landfills. We can do better.