Americans receive about 165 billion packages a year, not to mention all the goods they pick up at the store, most of them in individual packaging and containers. Out of all the cardboard, paper and plastic those goods come in, some of it is recycled, but much of it ends up incinerated or dumped in a landfill — or even in the ocean.

It is waste on a massive scale, and with online ordering increasing and recycling exports to China on the wane, it is getting worse. If the United States, and the rest of the world, is to fix its costly and destructive trash problem, then packaging must be addressed.

That’s why we support an effort in the Maine Legislature to shift at least some of the cost of packaging from consumers to companies.

The Environment and Natural Resources Committee is now drafting a bill that would force producers of packaging material to pay fees to municipalities based on the type of packaging they produce and how easily it can be disposed of, known as extended producer responsibility.

The idea is to push companies to reduce the amount of packaging used, and to create incentives for innovation in how to package and ship goods. What’s more, residents and municipalities would no longer be solely on the hook for the increasing costs associated with waste.

Those costs have increased in recent years as China has cut back on the amount of low-value recyclables it is accepting by import, a market that once paid cities and towns thousands of dollars a year but has now virtually disappeared — in 2018, ecomaine, which recycles 40,000 tons annually, said it was then paying out as much as $45 a ton to get rid of “dirty recyclables” that were previously worth $107 per ton to it in revenue. About 30 percent of municipal solid waste is packaging; the state Department of Environmental Protection says Maine taxpayers pay about $17 million a year to dispose of packaging alone.

Pushing companies to create, produce and use packaging that is less wasteful would raise recycling rates — which have stalled at 40 percent in Maine in recent years — and lower costs for taxpayers.

On a wider scale, it would take a chunk out of the waste stream that is currently filling landfills and incinerators, and often ends up in the ocean — the United Nations estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Maine can’t make that happen on its own, but it can add to the momentum. Extended producer responsibility programs are used in Europe and in five Canadian provinces. Other states are consider them, too.

To satisfy their own sustainability commitments, some large companies are already working on better packaging, proving it is possible.

Laws like the one being considered in Maine will give those companies and others a push to do the right thing, for taxpayers and the world around us.

 

 


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