The Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition and the Belfast Free Library sponsored a virtual presentation on plastic pollution and future solutions Feb. 18.

Guest speaker Christine Adamowicz of the Natural Resources Council of Maine spoke about the Extended Producer Responsibility bill, which, if passed, would require manufacturers to share responsibility for safe collection and recycling or disposal of their product packaging.

She noted that when you go to the grocery store, "all that stuff you're buying is packaged in something, and most often that stuff goes into our recycling bins.” Packaging makes up about 40% of the municipal solid waste stream.

Under the proposed law, manufacturers would pay a fee based on the packaging they use. Those that produce more recyclable packaging would pay a lower fee than those that do not.

The fee then would go back to municipalities to be invested in public awareness campaigns, recycling efforts, operations and infrastructure. Big corporations, Adamowicz said, already pay for recycling programs in more than 40 countries and five Canadian provinces through extended producer responsibility programs, some of which have been in place for more than 30 years.

The added cost to producers, she said, is relatively low and because they are already working with so many other countries that have these types of laws, they are incorporating the cost of protecting the environment as the cost of doing business.

The packaging problem came to a head in 2018 when China, the biggest buyer of used plastics, “closed their doors,” she said. This event, “was a blessing in disguise, because they shouldn’t be a dumping ground for our cheap plastics,” and because it forced the U.S. to figure out what to do with its own waste.

Since 1989, Maine has had a goal of recycling or composting 50% of the waste generated each year. The state has yet to reach that goal, and ironically, efforts have started to go in the wrong direction. “These days, more and more material is ending up in landfills and incinerators,” Adamowicz said.

Recycling 50% of the state’s waste would translate roughly to taking 166,000 cars off the road, she noted.

Adamowicz pointed out that single-used plastics like to-go containers, cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles and straws make up most of the materials collected along the coast.

Also, producers that contributed the most to pollution include Coke, Nestle and Pepsico; plastic litter is often mistaken by wildlife for food, it tangles wildlife and cuts into their bodies. In Penobscot Bay, mussels on average contain 177 pieces of micro-plastics.

“And you all are on the front line with that bale of plastic in the Penobscot Bay,” she said. “That was really tragic. … But that’s what’s happening. It’s going to the incinerator, but ending up in the environment."

In Maine she said, recycling peaked at 40% and now is on a downward trajectory. The state’s recycling rates for both 2018 and 2019 were lower than in 2017, with the average reported by the Department of Environmental Protection at 36.46%. Most of the waste she said, is product packaging.

Canada, Asia and Europe have producer responsibility laws regarding packaging, but there are none in the U.S. Even China now is hoping to implement a similar law by 2022. “We are still in the dark,” Adamowicz said, “We don’t want to make brands take responsibility….”

But recently, she said, there has been positive activity, with 12 other states introducing legislation for packaging producers, too. “The tide is turning."

The product stewardship bill has been around for a while, she said. It was introduced in the Maine Legislature in 2019 and the governor directed the DEP to come back to the Legislature in 2020 with a law that would reform recycling in the state.

Adamowicz said the public hearing had broad support, with many Maine activists going up against corporations that do not want the state to change its recycling process. It was approved by the committee, but then was sidelined by the pandemic.

The bill has been resubmitted this year, she said. It has not yet been assigned a name or a number, which means, “We have some time to mobilize our municipalities.”

Local actions that have had a positive effect on pollution, she said, include the Belfast plastic bag and foam food container ban. “The cumulative effect is they impact the state Legislature,” she said.

“Because Belfast did the hard work to pass a local plastic bag and foam ban, it gave the Legislature confidence to do the same,” she said.

Other “low-hanging ordinances” she recommended — laws against balloon releases, which “always end up in the ocean;” plastic straws and stirrers, which she said are unnecessary; and plastic foodware like spoons, forks and knives, bags, coffee cups and lids should all be banned.

At the state level, the bills banning plastic bags and polystyrene foam food containers were delayed last year because of the pandemic, she said. Once those are implemented, she hopes to address other single-use plastics.

The proposed producer responsibility law is great for the environment and sets the stage to implement more environmental incentives for manufacturers, she said, it is also good for towns and cities across the state.

Adamowicz said municipalities that are struggling to cover the costs of recycling are adopting a municipal resolution, basically a letter of support, she said, that says “my town is educated about this law and we believe this is an important way forward for Maine.” It is nonbinding, but collectively it does carry some weight, she said.

“It worked with the bag bans and it worked with the foam bans,” she said, “and we are asking that you help us again. … They have a big impact.”

Adamowicz recommended bringing the letter before town councils to ask them to adopt it.  The process in its most basic form, she said, asks the Maine Legislature to give municipalities the option to be reimbursed for the cost of recycling.

For communities that may need help preparing a document, she is willing to lend a hand or can also give town selectmen or city council members a presentation about what she calls "a complex law."

She also recommended that people interested in supporting recycling reform in Maine sign a petition at recyclingreform.org.

“It’s really important,” she said.

For more information or to stay up to date with the Extended Producer Responsibility bill, visit facebook.com/NRCMenvironment.