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A shift in responsibility

Proposal would make manufacturers liable for environmental costs, impacts of recycling

BRATTLEBORO—The bulk of the responsibility to recycle now falls on the heads of individuals.

But the Vermont Legislature would like to eventually shift this responsibility to companies and require them to collect all the products and packaging they produce to keep them out of the waste stream.

That is the broad concept behind H.218, the Expanded Producer Responsibility Bill that is now under discussion in the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.

According to the Vermont Product Stewardship Council’s website, expanded producer responsibility, also called product stewardship, is “an environmental management strategy that encourages those who design, produce, sell, or use a product to take responsibility for minimizing the product’s environmental impact throughout all stages of the product’s life cycle, including end-of-life management.”

“[Drafting the bill] is a very complicated procedure. We know there’s going to be issues coming up,” said Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, about the two- to threeyear process ahead of the Legislature as it hammers out the details of the law.

Edwards described H.218 as “framework legislation” and told the Windham Solid Waste Management District (WSWMD) Planning/Operations Committee on Monday that other countries, such as Belgium and Germany, already have similar successful product stewardship laws.

The Legislature charged the Agency of Natural Resources in 2007 to form a Solid Waste Working Group to develop proposals or recommendations for managing Vermont’s solid waste stream.

According to Edwards, in its 2009 report, thethis working group suggested that the Legislature pass framework legislation as a way to increase recycling.

“Conceptually, we’re only building a skeleton,” said Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, who serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy with Edwards. “We’re not sure if that skeleton will be a dog or an elephant.”

Edwards said that Vermont’s recycling rate stands at 32 percent, a percentage she called “fairly pathetic” for a state with such a strong environmental mindset.

She would like to see a 90- or 95-percent rate like those of countries with product stewardship programs.

In Chittenden County, 45 percent of what could be recycled ends up in landfills, said Edwards.

According to a summary of the bill from attorney Andrew MacLean, including product stewardship requirements for packaging and printed materials would let Vermont remove 60 percent of these materials from its landfills.

Edwards said Montpelier wants to reachthe 60-percent mark within five years.

MacLean, of the lobbying firm MacLean, Meehan & Rice LLC in Montpelier, said that product stewardship legislation would prescribe fees as incentives for companies to reduce packaging and use more recyclable materials.

MacLean told the meeting participants that he represented the beverage industry, which wanted to “be a cooperative participant” and “be behind something that makes sense and is positive.”

Meeting members, such as Craig Goodenough of Goodenough Rubbish Removal of Brattleboro, took issue with the 32-percent rate, saying he thought it was incorrect because the state might not be accounting for private companies that do their own in-house recycling.

The bill would require companies selling more than $750,000 in products within the state to pay fees that would help fund a producers’ organization and infrastructure.

This association, and not the state, would manage the product stewardship program, said MacLean.

Although many details still have to be worked out, MacLean said that the state would develop recycling goals, but the producers’ association would develop the implementation plan. The state would ultimately approve the producers’ plan.

The idea, said MacLean, is to take pressure off the state and waste management districts for maintaining the program and retrieving fees from the producers.

Many of the small trash and recycling haulers present at the meeting responded cynically to whether the state or the proposed producers’ association could get money out of any of the companies.

Deborah Goodenough of Goodenough Rubbish Removal asked whether the stewardship fees would end up like the $6-a-ton tax that haulers have to pay to the state.

That money was supposed to go toward recycling education, but WSWMD Director George Murray acknowledged that the $6 tax went mostly to other programs within the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).

Murray said that about $4,000 a year from the tax is divided among district towns in the form of Solid Waste Implantation Planning grants.

Other audience members expressed fears that the H.218 legislation would favor big hauling companies like Rutland-based Casella Waste Management Inc., which recently reported three-month revenues of $111.6 million to investors, while pushing smaller companies out of business.

“That’s where we need to talk,” said Edwards, who reminded the meeting members that developing H.218 would likely be a two- to three- year process.

Cheryl Franklin, of Franklin & Son Rubbish Removal in Vernon, asked whether H.218 wwould discourage manufacturers from locating in Vermont because they’d have one more set of fees.

Other guests asked whether this legislation would drive more shoppers and companies across the river to New Hampshire or south to Massachusetts.

This bill will cost you more down the road, said Timothy Franklin, also of Franklin & Son.

Edwards said that H.218 wouldn’t pass until the surrounding states also reached a similar “threshold” with product stewardship or recycling.

Vermont, with its small population, doesn’t have the power to go it alone, said Bob Rottenberg of Brattleboro, who used to run the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District, WSWMD’s counterpart in Massachusetts.

But he said that H.218 can be a “shot across the bow that says you can do this with us,” adding that the purpose of the bill is to push the recycling responsibility upstream toward the companies. If Vermont took the first step, he said, other states would follow.

Edwards reminded everyone that H.218 is a work in progress. She encouraged people to stay involved and to pass their concerns on to her or Hebert.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #94 (Wednesday, March 30, 2011).

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