Whenever we buy something, we reason that the price reflects the costs to produce and deliver the item, and a fair profit margin for the supply chain. Environmental or health benefits of products are very frequently and aggressively asserted by these sellers, and we frequently choose to buy items in reliance on those assertions. Turns out, though, that there are big holes in this logic: Local governments – not the sellers – have been held responsible for disposal or recycling of waste and packaging for the product after purchase and at the end of its useful life.

Alam Jahanger sorts recycling at ecomaine in 2020. Historically, retailers have not been held responsible for the costs of disposing of or recycling products or their packaging. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

We now know without a doubt that there are big costs associated with waste disposal and recycling, and that there are dire consequences if the job is not done properly. We also know that there is generally not enough value in the outputs of recycling to cover disposal and recycling costs. In fact, the deeper we look, the more costs we see associated with waste disposal and recycling. As our response to climate change accelerates, we can see that even more direct and indirect costs are going to have to be accounted for in the products we produce and consume.

We can do what we’ve historically done, and just say that product disposal and recycling should be a government responsibility, and the increasing costs will be allocated as taxes are assessed in general, on sales, assets and income.

Is that fair, when disposal and recycling costs vary extremely widely by product, and sellers of products are profiting from not having to bear the costs of their products across their life cycles? Do we not need to allocate disposal and recycling costs to the products in question based on the costs of disposing of or recycling a product? If paper can be easily and profitably recycled, should the very high costs of recycling lithium batteries and other such products be assessed on paper? No, it is not fair, and it is not good policy. Nor will it encourage the innovation and behavioral changes that will be necessary to meet the challenges of our day.

L.D. 1541 is not perfect, but it is a milestone first step in the direction we have to go – which includes honest recognition of all of the true costs of products, and fair allocation of those costs to those selling and those buying and using those products – rather than pushing them off on local governments (i.e., taxpayers) already struggling to make ends meet. This approach fails to protect the public interest in too many ways to list, and it unfairly enriches those that take advantage of our imbalanced system.

I applaud the Maine Legislature for drafting and enacting L.D. 1541. This is another case of Maine doing the sensible thing. I urge Gov. Mills to sign the legislation so we can start down the path of fairly allocating the costs of products in our marketplace. The principle of fair allocation of costs will be central to addressing the many challenges we face today, which require us to practice sustainability in all aspects of our environment and our economy. It is also necessary to encourage innovation, social responsibility and market-driven solutions. If she signs the bill, it will say much about her commitment to fairness and sustainability.

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