ENVIRONMENTALISTS joined forces with Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's administration last week to support what could become the most radical packaging law in the United States. If the proposed law is approved by the legislature, say its advocates, recycling markets will boom and much pressure will be taken off bulging landfills. The "recycling initiative" requires that, by 1996, all packaging sold within Massachusetts would have to meet one of three criteria:
Be reusable at least five times.
Be made from at least 50 percent recycled materials.
Or be made from recyclable materials - defined as materials that are being recycled within the state at a rate of at least 35 percent by 1996 and 50 percent by the year 2000.
Exemptions would be made for the use of nonrecyclable tamper-proof seals.
Ten other states are expected to consider this same packaging initiative this year.
Packaging is targeted because it comprises 31 percent of the municipal solid waste in Massachusetts, most of which goes to landfills. Of the 194 landfills operating in the state, 151 will be filled by the end of next year, say environmental officials.
"We are enormously pleased to support this legislation as a way to establish markets for recycling materials, and to husband the limited landfill capacity here in Massachusetts," says Secretary of Environmental Affairs Susan Tierney.
Recycling makes good economic sense, according to a report released March 29 by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG). Written by Robert Stone, an economist affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the report compares landfill costs with recycling costs and concludes that recycling nets a benefit of $231 per ton. Among the benefits: lower taxes for consumers and more jobs in the recycling and packaging industries.
THE law is needed because use of recycled materials is not widely supported in the free market, says Professor Stone. "This is an inducement to get them working," he explains.
But those in the retail and packaging industries argue that the legislation is an unfair "ban" on almost every type of packaging - glass, plastic, paper - and will result in higher costs to consumers and fewer choices on supermarket shelves.
Objecting to criminal penalties written into the legislation, juice bottler Bill Lindsey of Veryfine Products Inc., employer of 400 workers in Westford, Mass., asks, "Am I going to go to jail for using the wrong paper label?"
Unpacking a cloth grocery bag, Madeline Johnson of the Grocery Manufacturers of America exhibits three products that would be banned from shelves: salad dressing in a glass bottle, a soft drink in a 25-percent recycled plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle, and ketchup in a squeezable plastic bottle.
"These are state-of-the art packages, and none of them would meet the standards of the legislation," she says.
But Amy Perry, director of the solid waste program at MASSPIRG and co-author of the legislation, points out: "That's state of the art in 1991. We're talking about 1996. It's quite clear that since the recycling technology exists, packaging could be made to meet the standards."
The plastics industry is most vociferous in opposing the bill, she says, because its levels of recycling are so low. But of the six major plastic resins, only two could potentially have a difficult time meeting the proposed standards: polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used in shampoo bottles), and polypropylene (PPL), used in battery cases, caps, and labels. Perry's solution: make those products out of the plastics that can be recycled more easily.
The plastics industry instead supports legislation that would limit only eight-ounce to one-gallon "rigid" containers.
MASSPIRG's Perry cites nonpartisan support for the tougher proposal by environmental groups like the Audubon Society and Conservation Law Foundation; Boston's City Council; and 124 of the state legislature's 200 members.