The State of Maine has stood out as a leader in the U.S. product stewardship movement, passing the country’s first extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws on electronics, thermostats, fluorescent lamps, and comprehensive framework. It also passed laws on automobile switches and batteries. In the U.S., there are now more than 70 EPR laws in 32 states on 10 products. These laws have begun to change the wasteful ways of our society by requiring manufacturers to internalize product lifecycle costs that are otherwise imposed on the public – from manufacture to ultimate recycling or disposal. By recovering valuable materials, these laws are also the backbone of a vision for more recycling jobs and greater national security by controlling the source of materials for use in new products. Maine exhibited an elegant pragmatism in passing its EPR laws. The Maine State Legislature and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) carefully considered well formed options, made clear decisions, and achieved results.
In a crushing turn for the product stewardship movement, Maine Governor Paul LePage sought to reverse these laws since taking office in 2011, threatening to nullify significant economic and environmental progress in the state. It appears that the Governor has chosen to listen only to those who oppose Maine’s EPR laws, and shut out the viewpoints of important stakeholders such as Maine’s local governments, businesses, environmental groups, and others in the state who might disagree with his preconceived notion that government regulation equals economic stagnation.
To be sure, there are many businesses that support EPR, particularly product recyclers, which create up to ten times the number of jobs as those working in the waste disposal business. Although there are several business groups opposing Maine’s EPR programs, including those that manufacture carpet, mattresses, fluorescent lights, thermostats, and toys, one company – Honeywell – has stood out as an example of why the public interest can only be served by including the viewpoints of all stakeholders. Honeywell has manufactured and sold more mercury thermostats than any other company, and for this reason it is on the hook to pay more money than any other to safely collect and recycle those mercury thermostats removed from walls and replaced with newer models. Honeywell is also the majority player in the Thermostat Recycling Corporation, which has collected only 5 percent of the mercury thermostats sold into the market. Yet, through its industry lobbying organization, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, Honeywell opposes legislation that would require the company to collect and safely recycle its fair share of mercury thermostats manufactured and installed in homes and businesses over the past 50 years.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, mercury exposure can lead to memory loss, complications related to attention and language, inhibit motor and coordination skills, and negatively impact many other areas of neurological development. Mercury pollution is also responsible for warnings in Maine and across the country that alert consumers to limit their consumption of certain types of fish that contain high levels of mercury. Fish and Maine have always had a strong relationship. But over 67 tons of mercury have been emitted into the environment since 1998 as a result of thermostat manufacturers failing to meet their social responsibility to safely collect and recycle mercury thermostats. It is truly shocking that this staggering statistic was not a sufficient reason for the Governor to seek out other perspectives. Even more baffling is the fact that Honeywell sought PSI’s assistance in 2006 to pass the original thermostat legislation in Maine, consented to an agreement that PSI mediated with company executives, Maine DEP, and state environmental groups, and then proceeded to spend the next 6 years fighting the same law it had initially supported.
On January 16, public comments were due to the Maine DEP on the agency’s second report issued under its 2010 EPR framework law. This report, released in December, was supposed to evaluate the thermostat recycling law and the five other state EPR laws. PSI joined more than 150 Maine citizens and other state and national organizations when it submitted comments. While PSI supports the effort to evaluate these EPR programs, we found the report to be truly unworthy of being called an evaluation, let alone a “cost-benefit analysis,” which implies rigorous analysis. This report is merely a biased tool that disparages EPR programs while using incorrect or incomplete information. It even denigrated the state’s EPR program staff by leaving the strong impression that they took inappropriate actions, without providing any justification for these statements. PSI strongly believes that this report should be redone with greater competency and wider stakeholder input.
Governor LePage seems to have created a culture of fear in his own environmental agency, where thoughtful discussion is unwelcome and strict adherence to his perspective is required. He seems to believe that laws pertaining to environmental issues have no connection to improving the economy, and fails to understand that EPR laws foster the healthy environment that is so crucial to Maine’s tourism, fishing, hunting, and way of life. His black-and-white, us-versus-them ideology makes him incapable of partnering even with industry groups at the forefront of the environmental movement that want to sponsor stewardship legislation in Maine to create more jobs, save money for local governments, and protect the environment.
Good government policies can lead to private sector innovation by creating a level playing field and, at the same time, reduce the external costs imposed on society by actions of powerful corporations. America is a democracy. We need state leaders who listen to all its citizens and seek to balance government regulation and free market enterprise so that innovation is unleashed while public interests are protected. This balance has been horribly upset in Maine. We hope for its return.