An empty Amazon box sits outside a north Jackson, Miss., residence, awaiting pickup for recycling

A new law in Maine requires large companies to pay for recycling packaging waste

Scott Cassel, CEO and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute in Boston, discusses the law with The World's host Marco Werman.

The World

An empty Amazon box sits outside a north Jackson, Mississippi, residence, awaiting pickup for recycling, July 29, 2019.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Here's a novel idea: make a mess, you pay for it. It's a message that the state of Maine is sending to large companies.

This month, Maine passed a law that makes companies pay for the packaging waste they create, and nearly a dozen states are now on track to follow suit.

Related: Bahamas Plastic Movement founder wins Goldman Environmental Prize

The new Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging law aims to increase recycling rates, reduce packaging pollution and save taxpayers money.

The concept may be a new idea in the United States, but it's actually been around in Europe for decades.

Related: Can UK communities go 'plastic free' with cultural shift?

Scott Cassel, CEO and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute in Boston, discusses the law with The World's host Marco Werman.

Marco Werman: So, what exactly does this new law require companies to do? What do you hope the outcome is going to be?
Scott Cassel: Well, in essence, it requires producers to take greater responsibility for products and the packaging that they put onto the marketplace. So, from a very basic level, there is a shift in cost from the municipalities and the taxpayers to the producers who put these products onto the marketplace.
So, for example, the company ships out a tiny widget in a giant box and that company's product is sold in Maine. What consequences would that company face?
They will be charged for the material and then there will be extra charges for materials that have extra cost for the recycling system. So, for example, if it is a plastic that has very few markets, they're going to be paying more to put that onto the marketplace. If they put less packaging out to the market, if they have refillable containers, if they have reusable containers or highly recyclable containers, they're actually going to pay a lot less for those materials.
Nearly every country in the European Union has a similar law to the one just passed in Maine. What has been the impact on the amount of recycling and waste there?
Well, there's been a great evolution over the years. In 1994, they started with a Europeanwide directive. Over time, there's been a number of different iterations of that directive that have increased the collection and recycling targets over time, incentives to change the design of packaging. And it has even gone into reducing the environmental and social impacts on non-EU countries where some of this packaging material is processed. Here in the United States, we're at an average rate of 32% across the country for packaging recycling. Nearly all the participating EU countries that have these types of programs reach at least 60%, with many reaching 70%-80%. One individual I have to call out is Joachim Quoden, who's the managing director of an organization called EXPRA. They manage, or oversee, all of the European nonprofit organizations that implement these programs.
You alluded to this earlier. We've seen a number of countries either limit or stop altogether, receiving any recycled trash from the US because a lot of it is not recyclable. China did that not long ago. Is that trend also driving laws like the one Maine passed?
Absolutely. The restriction of our recyclables being accepted in China has definitely catapulted this to the top of the political agenda because the costs have increased so significantly for municipalities. The reduced market means that most of that material has to be disposed of. Many municipalities around the country have had to cut back on what they're collecting, or some have even stopped their programs altogether. The restriction of the materials being accepted has definitely influenced the number of bills that we're seeing around the country, and that has gotten the producers to the table to start discussions about how these systems can work for them.
I'm curious —your contact mentor in Germany, who has helped you in your work in the US, what was his reaction when he learned you had succeeded with this law in Maine?
Well, he sent me an email and he said, "Scott, is this really true!" exclamation point. I think there were three of them, because he and I have been going back and forth on this for a very long time, and Europe has started this program in 1990 with the German program. And here we're just getting to it in 2021.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.