Sparks Fly in Massachusetts Over Broad Recycling Plan

A BALLOT initiative to encourage recycling in Massachusetts has become the subject of a bitter debate as next week's vote nears.

Proponents say rules on the packaging of products sold in the state are needed to stimulate demand for recycled materials. Opponents say the initiative amounts to a costly new bureaucracy and an unnecessary government intervention in the marketplace.

The initiative comes as leaders around the country, including all three major presidential candidates, appear headed in a new direction: toward using "market-based" incentives to attack environmental problems.

With a torrent of business-sponsored advertising warning residents of higher shopping bills, the vote promises to be close. The "Massachusetts Packaging Reduction and Recycling Act," Question 3 on the ballot, would be the nation's first comprehensive packaging measure if passed.

It would apply to all the estimated 50,000 to 75,000 products sold in the state. Other states have implemented recycled-content rules for specific materials, such as newsprint.

Retailers here would have several alternative ways to comply: showing that packages are reused, that the weight has been reduced, that the materials used in the package are being recycled, or that the package itself contains recycled materials.

Of 39,000 retailers in Massachusetts, 27,000 would be exempted because they have less than 10 employees. Benefits of the measure such as weight-reduction and recyclability would still show up in packaging used at the exempted stores without imposing the regulatory burden on them, says the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MassPIRG), the initiative's sponsor.

Some products could win exemptions from the rules if it was shown that noncompliant packaging was essential to meet health or safety needs.

One critic of the measure, Lynn Scarlett, says better results can be achieved at a much lower cost through an incentive system known as "unit pricing" - making consumers bear their full share of garbage-collection costs to encourage diverting waste from landfills.

Ms. Scarlett, a recycling expert at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, was in Boston last week to present her incentive scheme, which won a "better government" award in a competition sponsored by the Pioneer Institute.

"Most cities in the United States, including those in Massachusetts, do not charge [a separate fee], or charge only a subsidized rate for waste collection and disposal," Scarlett says. One survey found only 4 of 176 Massachusetts cities used unit pricing, for example.

A pay-per-bag system would for the first time give many residents a financial incentive to compost yard waste, to recycle, and to divert items such as clothing and furniture to reuse outlets. In cities where unit-based pricing has been introduced, recycling participation typically has gone up and landfill waste has dropped. The price of processing centers for recyclable materials can be built into the fee system.

MassPIRG attorney Josh Kratka says the unit pricing is a good supplement to the ballot initiative, but not a substitute.

"Together, they make a whole lot of sense," he says, arguing that manufacturers should still be prodded to use the materials collected by the growing number of curbside recycling programs.

Proponents of the measure argue that, with the spread of curbside pickup of materials, the big need now is to boost demand from manufacturers. Low prices for materials such as newsprint have driven up municipal recycling costs.

Scarlett says few recycled materials are actually failing to find a market and that low prices will help build demand.

She adds that many reuses are not for packaging, but for products such as animal bedding, insulation, and glassphalt.

Both sides in the debate agree that many products already meet the standards.

Makers of plastic packaging would have the greatest difficulty complying, while recycling rates for many types of paper, glass, and metal products are already high enough to comply with the initiative's initial targets.

Opponents fret that the initiative's biggest costs will be in reporting and administrative requirements, not packaging changes. Advocates say this worry is overblown.

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