Plastic is everywhere. It is filling up landfills, littering our roadways and choking our oceans and wildlife. Very little is ever recycled.

And a lot of it starts out as packaging, used once on practically every item sold in stores or ordered online then thrown away, with more products and more packaging coming every day.

In terms of municipal waste management and environmental degradation, the cost is enormous. Someone has to pay it — and it should be those who decide to use all that plastic, and who have the power to change course.

Maine could become the first state to do that with two bills now under consideration. L.D. 1541, from Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, and L.D. 1471, from Sen. James Dill, D-Old Town, would create extended producer responsibility programs for plastic and cardboard packaging.

Such programs are used in Canada and Europe already to make producers responsible for the waste they produce, and to incentivize innovation in the use of recyclable materials.

L.D. 1541 is the better bill, as L.D. 1471 would give too much oversight of the program to the companies creating the waste.

Grohoski’s bill would require that producers who use packaging pay into a fund based on the weight of the material. The money is then used to reimburse municipalities for the costs they take on through waste management.

Those costs have risen significantly since the global market for recyclables collapsed, leaving towns and cities without a revenue stream for its waste, as well as a whole lot of leftover trash for the landfill. According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, 30% to 40% of the waste produced in the state comes from packaging, and costs about $16 million a year to manage.

Those costs are only going to increase as packaging continues to accumulate, not the least because of the steady rise in online shopping, which brings loads of plastic wrapped around each purchase.

An extended producer responsibility program could help. Elsewhere, these programs have been found to help governments endure volatility in the recycling market and reduce taxpayer spending. At their best, they can reduce the use of packaging and encourage the development of markets for difficult-to-recycle materials. Costs, studies have found, were not passed on to consumers.

But design matters. The best programs take advantage of existing recycling infrastructure. They hold producers accountable, and require that they improve packaging to make it more environmentally friendly.

Maine can create such a program, even if it is the first state to do so.

The alternative — the road we are already on — is to be steadily buried in plastic, even as our property taxes rise. In both the loss to our environment and an increase in our tax bills, we are paying for it.


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