Last month, Maine signed the nation’s first packaging-based extended producer responsibility program into law, signaling a possible sea change in the way we handle recycling in the United States.

Maine’s extended producer responsibility for packaging law, LD 1541, will shift the costs of dealing with product packaging, whether it is recyclable or not, from municipalities and consumers to producers. The law will require packaging producers to report on the types and quantity of packaging materials sold into the state. A to-be-formed Stewardship Organization will then charge these producers an annual fee intended to account for the disposal and recycling costs associated with those packaging materials. The fees collected will be passed along to municipalities that have traditionally borne the cost of recycling or disposing of all of this packaging. Unless they are otherwise exempt, producers will not be allowed to sell or distribute products in Maine without complying with the law.

Extended producer responsibility laws aim to provide incentives for producers to reduce the packaging materials they use and focus on packaging recyclability. Producers in Maine will soon be required to realize the impact of their packaging from cradle to grave (or reincarnation). The hope is that this realization will lead producers, who have control over the packaging they use, to choose more sustainable options. Similar laws in other jurisdictions have been shown to increase recycling rates and reduce packaging waste overall.

The Maine law will not go into effect for a couple of years, but a number of other states are considering similar laws. This growing popularity of these laws appears to be a direct result of increased consumer and investor awareness of the challenges associated with recycling and the true economic impact of unsustainable business practices. They could signal a larger shift towards a reallocation of how we deal with the full life cycle of the products we create and consume.