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Recycling programs need a reboot — and some financial help from online retailers

It’s time to stem the tide of packaging at its source.

The lack of demand for recyclable waste is prompting some communities in Massachusetts to question the viability of their recycling programs. Recyclables from single-stream collection are shown in this 2018 photo at E.L. Harvey & Sons in Westborough.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file

Getting rid of trash always costs money. And if there’s a silver lining to the state’s ongoing recycling crisis, it’s a growing awareness that there’s no free lunch when it comes to throwing away your lunch. Municipalities certainly need to find a way to weather the current turbulence in the recycling market, but generating less garbage in the first place and developing a sustainable funding system must also become higher priorities.

For years, communities in Massachusetts paid almost nothing for their curbside recycling programs, because the materials found a valuable market in China. But China’s government recently prohibited the import of contaminated foreign garbage, slicing curbside recycling revenues by 50 percent, according to one estimate. Now the US companies that haul away old cans, newspapers, and cardboard boxes have to replace the lost revenue and have been demanding higher payments from the towns they serve.


For instance, Springfield is facing an increase of $1.2 million in costs, which has the city thinking about ending its recycling program. Boston’s cost went from $200,000 in 2017 to $2 million now, according to a Globe news story, but the city is sticking with its program.

That’s the right call: It’s taken years to build up the recycling habit, and municipalities should try to ride out the disruption. And now that Americans have been forced to confront the reality that recycling isn’t free, policy makers should develop ways to shift the cost to the companies that produce plastic packaging and all those cardboard boxes. Not only would such fees close the funding gap, but they would also create an incentive for companies to produce only the minimum necessary packaging.

It’s not a radical notion. The Maine legislature passed a bill last summer requiring the state’s department of environmental protection to draft legislation to help fund the cost of recycling common household packaging, while other states are considering similar moves. There is also a federal effort led by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico. Parts of Canada and Europe already make some producers pay for recycling. In the United States, producers of various consumer goods, including paint and electronics, have to fund disposal programs.


In Massachusetts, state Representative Michael Day introduced legislation last year that would create the Sustainable Packaging Advisory Board, which would be tasked with creating a “schedule for the collection of . . . fees from producers of printed paper and packaging” and would exclude small producers and beverage containers.

As more shoppers order goods online, American communities are witnessing rapid shifts. (For example, the extra traffic from all those delivery trucks.) Public policy is only beginning to catch up. When the state’s recycling programs were first implemented, Amazon still just meant a river in Brazil. Figuring out a way to charge e-commerce giants to take care of the huge amount of packaging they now generate is a first step to ensuring that those municipal recycling programs remain viable.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.