Ah, Vermont, home of Bernie, cradle of progressivism, always in the vanguard of positive change.
Or so we like to believe.
In reality, more often than not we lag behind other jurisdictions. And I’ve got not one, not two, but three examples to share.
First, we are now officially behind the Biden administration on the right to repair — which allows consumers to act as if they own the stuff they buy. Second and third, the state of Maine has enacted two bills that put Vermont in the shade. Maine has imposed a virtual ban on the use of PFAS chemicals (so-called “forever chemicals”), the compounds that have created a huge mess in the Bennington area. Also, Maine has passed “extended product responsibility” legislation that makes manufacturers responsible for the ultimate fate of their product packaging.
So why are we behind in these areas? Well, all three touch on corporate interests. Our lawmakers tend to wither and fade when exposed to testimony from the business community. Besides, these are exactly the kinds of bills that Gov. Scott frequently vetoes over vague concerns about competitiveness or costs.
Our Legislature has been kicking the “right to repair” can down the road for three years. A 2018 bill that would have established a broad right to repair was given the death of a thousand cuts. What emerged instead was a bill creating… wait for it…
… a study committee. Yippee.
The committee issued a mealy-mouthed report in 2019 that suggested that the Legislature maybe think about doing something, but not too quickly nor too radically. RTR went nowhere in the 2019-20 session. This year, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser introduced H.58, which would have established a right to repair for farm equipment. That’s one of many areas where manufacturers provide parts and service manuals only to authorized shops — which pay handsomely for the designation, and pass the cost on to the consumer.
There are many kinds of repairs that could be done by consumers themselves, or in independent repair shops. But not unless the law removes the competitive barriers set up by manufacturers.
Need I tell you what happened to Kornheiser’s bill? It was sent to the House Agriculture Committee, which took a bit of testimony and then acted as if H.58 didn’t exist. Right to repair is a reasonable consumer-protection measure, but it seems far too extreme for our legislators.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is taking executive action to boost the right to repair. It won’t be as all-encompassing as actual legislation, but it’s more than Vermont has managed to do.
Regarding PFAS, the Vermont Legislature did approve a bill this year banning the chemicals in a variety of consumer products. But Maine’s legislation is much tougher than Vermont’s; effective in 2030, all uses of PFAS will be banned in Maine except in cases deemed “currently unavoidable.” So we’ve got some catching up to do.
Finally, there’s “extended producer responsibility,” a concept largely unknown in These United States, but an established principle in many western European nations. In Germany, a manufacturer is responsible “cradle to grave” for its products, whether they’re toothpicks or automobiles. And yes, it meant added costs for manufacturers — but it strongly incentivized them to make production less wasteful and design products that can be reprocessed. Out of necessity, producers learned how to be less wasteful and more earth-friendly. In the process, they became more efficient and competitive.
Maine’s legislation is weak tea compared to Germany’s. It applies mainly to packaging, not products themselves. The bill will levy a fee on manufacturers which will pay for the costs of recycling programs. That’s a big deal, because recycling nationwide has been on the ropes since China stopped allowing imports of recycled American material. The fees will help, even as they encourage producers to streamline their packaging.
This will be the ninth EPR law on the Maine books. The others apply to items like electronic waste, paint, and products that contain mercury; a tenth law covering prescription medications will become law later this year.
So maybe Vermont could enact at least one such bill? Pretty please?
These are only three of many examples in which Vermont has been far from first. The next time I hear someone say “We can’t be first all the time,” my response will be “Actually, we’re hardly ever first on anything.” We could stand to be more forward-thinking more of the time.