House panel scraps proposals to impose packaging fee on manufacturers

GOP delegate says he will ask a state task force to examine idea

By: - January 31, 2022 12:03 am
Recycling dumpster

A recycling container in Richmond, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Three proposals to impose a fee on manufacturers selling products in Virginia based on how much packaging they use were killed by a Republican-led House subcommittee last week over concerns about consumer price hikes, but the chair is urging a state recycling task force to take a look at the issue. 

“I’m going to be blunt. When you get something the size of a phone and the package is the size of this desk and you start looking at some of this stuff, it kind of makes you wonder,” said Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, who heads up the Subcommittee on Agriculture, during a meeting Wednesday. 

Webert said he plans to ask Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, who chairs the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, to send a letter to the Virginia Waste Diversion and Recycling Task Force requesting that it consider the proposals. 

The bills — put forward by Dels. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond; Mark Keam, D-Fairfax; and  Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington — would have set up a Packaging Stewardship Program and fund that starting on Jan. 1, 2023 would have required larger manufacturers to pay an annual fee to the Department of Environmental Quality based on the amount of packaging they use. All included exemptions for smaller producers and fee offsets for companies with alternative collection programs. 

“At this point, consumers are responsible for recycling,” Carr told the subcommittee Wednesday. “What this bill does is try to equalize [the cost] between the manufacturers and the consumers so that both have some responsibility.” 

The idea isn’t new. Last year saw a wave of similar bills across the nation, including one adopted by Maine’s legislature that expects to begin assessing fees on producers in 2026

Together, the proposals are known as extended producer responsibility programs. The Northern Virginia Waste Management Board, which supports EPR programs like Maine’s for products and packaging that are difficult to dispose of, contended in a policy brief that producers have “the most influence over the design of products and packaging and, if they are partially responsible for the cost of recycling or disposal, they will design their products to be more easily recovered and/or disposed.” 

Local governments “have spent tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars on facilities, land, equipment, personnel to collect and recycle cardboard boxes, plastic containers and other packaging materials or disposal of nonrecyclable packaging,” said Steve Potter, a town councilman for Vienna in Fairfax County. “All of this has been done at the taxpayer’s expense.” 

An approach like the Packaging Stewardship Program, he said, “would switch this burden and bring the producers of the products who put this on the market some added responsibilities.” 

Producers, though, disputed the efficacy of the proposals and pushed for solutions that were driven by private industry rather than government. And Michael Rolband, the new director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality appointed earlier this month by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said the administration opposed the legislation, although he offered no reasons.

Forest products businesses argued that paper companies already have successful buyback programs in place to repurpose cardboard and paper. According to numbers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency based on data from the American Forest & Paper Association, roughly 68 percent of all paper and cardboard used in 2018 was recycled

“Our forest products industry doesn’t need this bill,” said Corey Connors, executive director of the Virginia Forestry Association. 

Industry representatives also told lawmakers that imposing a fee on producers would simply push up consumer prices. 

Mike Carlin, a lobbyist for the Coalition for Consumer Choices, a group that formed in late 2019 to oppose a proposal to ban polystyrene and which includes five regional chambers of commerce and the Virginia Manufacturers Association, said the program would cause “a shift in the cost of the current recycling system to producers of goods which will create a hidden tax on packaged goods that are bought by Virginians.” 

“We believe it establishes a mandate for packaging producers to participate in a government-run program that will only shift costs of the current recycling system and do nothing to improve that current system,” said Dan Felton of the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, a trade association for the packaging industry. 

Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, however, was skeptical of industry arguments that consumers would suffer from the fee given that taxpayers already pay for waste management services through local governments. 

“At worst, it’s neutral in the sense that taxpayers who are also consumers are paying the cost regardless, whether they’re paying for it in terms of their grocery bill or they’re paying for it in taxes, but at least we’re creating a new incentive to reduce the amount of waste that manufacturers are using,” said Helmer. “Today they don’t have any incentive whatsoever because it is consumers as taxpayers who are actually paying for that waste.” 

Republicans on the subcommittee ultimately prevailed in a party-line vote to reject the bills. Under House rules, if a subcommittee doesn’t recommend legislation by a majority vote, the full committee isn’t required to consider it. 

“I really think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that something like this is not going to end up on the consumer’s checkbook,” said Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham. “The manufacturer is going to pass through. That’s how the thing works.” 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.