Advanced Recycling: What is it, and why was it shot down in the RI State House?
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
Written by Meg Fay '23
Edited by Jasmine Shum '24
Plastic crisis solution or distraction? Source:WPRI.com
On June 21st, 2022 in Providence, Rhode Island, the State House released an official statement that they would not be considering bills H 8089/S 2788A, also known as the “Advanced Recycling Bill” . When most people hear the word “recycling”, they think of an environmentally responsible process that cuts down on waste. On the surface, this press release seems like another disappointing rejection of going green from the government. But what exactly is advanced recycling? And what did the Advanced Recycling Bill say?
Advanced recycling, also referred to as chemical recycling, is an umbrella term for chemical processes that break down plastic into a feedstock liquid or solid resin for the production of new plastics. The proposed breakdown of plastics is done through pyrolysis—thermal decomposition in a nonreactive atmosphere to break the starting material down into smaller more volatile components . This means the advanced recycling process takes in low-to-no oxygen and high-heat environments. Bills H 8089/S 2788A would have exempted advanced recycling facilities from solid waste management regulations, leading it to instead be regulated as a manufacturer of new plastics . Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) spokesperson Jay Wegimont said, “The solid waste permitting process would allow an opportunity for public comment, authority to set conditions on the overall facility construction and operation, and provide financial assurances that closure would be done properly should the facility run into difficulties” . Knowing what the bill says, let's explore who is on either side of the controversy.
This bill to lighten regulations on advanced recycling was sponsored by Sen. Frank Lombardo and narrowly passed in the senate with strong endorsement and lobbying from the American Chemistry Council (ACC). The ACC is an industry trade association for American chemical companies with the goal “to deliver long-term business value through exceptional advocacy and improved member performance” . They engage in member recruitment, political advocacy, and scientific research communications. Notable members of the ACC include 3M, Dow, DuPont, ExxonMobile, and Merck. The ACC supports advanced recycling as an environmentally friendly act to lessen the ever-increasing amount of plastic waste, while simultaneously saving the state money and bringing in more manufacturing jobs. In an interview with Politico, ACC director, Craid Cookson mentioned that they were looking to partner with the state’s Chamber of Commerce and other groups who want to increase employment. He also stated that if states want to hit higher recycling rates, they were going to have to pass bills that depend on producer responsibility .
Opponents of the bill are distrustful of the new technology and its potential impacts on already-burdened RI communities. Providence groups are skeptical of the pyrolysis process is as clean as it is advertised. Conservation Law Foundation attorney Kevin Burdis explained, “This is an energy-intensive process that involves bringing plastic to high temperatures to break them down into hydrocarbons and other toxic waste byproducts.” With concerns around the process not being an entirely closed system and the escape of harmful gases, the siting of these facilities is also under scrutiny. The Senate bill went through a series of amendations that limit the location of these facilities to state-owned locations like the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation in Johnston and the Narragansett Bay Commission in the Port of Providence. The Washington Park Neighborhood Association and the People’s Port Authority are community organizations made up of citizens from the Washington Park and South Providence neighborhoods. They worry that this facility in the port will place unwarranted stress on the overburdened communities that border the busy port industrial area . RIDEM has also been in opposition to advanced plastics recycling facilities because of the lack of detail in the company's application, specifically citing the lack of systems efficacy, waste containment, and contingency plans with first responders . While critiques ranged in topics among these groups, they gathered together outside the Rhode Island State House to successfully protest the bill on the day of the vote.
Citing recent environmental accomplishments and acknowledging severe unanswered questions and concerns surrounding the bill, H 8089/S 2788A was shot down this summer. However, this controversial project has been in and out of the State House for the past two years. In fact, in a short reply to the loss, ACC hinted at lobbying for similar legislation in the future, referring to this bill's failure as a “delay”. While it is still unknown what this kind of future legislation will look like, community opponents claim to be ready and waiting .
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