PROVIDENCE — In the video, a 7-year-old boy with missing front teeth talks about how much plastic there is in the world, including his plastic toy dinosaurs.
“By the time I’m my Dad’s age, like in 30 years, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish,” he says. “And it makes me feel bad.”
The solution, the boy says, lies in the “advanced recycling” plant where his father works in Ashley, Indiana, a small town best known for a water tower painted with a bright-yellow smiley face.
“I saw plastic getting turned back into oil,” the boy says on a tour of the plant. “It will keep plastic from going into landfills, incinerators, and our oceans, reducing greenhouse gas, which will help us from going extinct like the dinosaurs.”
Senator Frank Lombardo III, a Johnston Democrat, showed the video to the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, saying it simplifies the argument for his bill to clear the way in Rhode Island for “advanced recycling” plants, which use the high-heat process known as pyrolysis to turn plastic into fuel.
The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday by a vote of 19 to 14.
But environmentalists say the Brightmark corporate video does more than simplify the matter – they say the gee-whiz narrative attempts to paint a smiley face on a “toxic industry” that would set back Rhode Island’s progress in addressing climate change and matters of environmental justice.
“This bill is the biggest legislative threat to our environment this year,” said Kevin Budris, staff attorney for the zero waste project at the Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island office. “The Brightmark video shown to the Senate Judiciary Committee was incredibly misleading.”
He said Brightmark does not recycle plastic or manufacture products. Rather, he said, Brightmark uses a two-step pyrolysis process to burn plastic waste. He said 90 percent of the output from its Ashley, Indiana, plant is plastic-derived fuel, most of which it burns onsite, and the other 10 percent is toxic char, which must go to a landfill.
Budris noted that last year the state Department of Environmental Management rejected a permit application for a proposed medical waste-to-energy plant in West Warwick. MedRecycler, a New Jersey company, had pitched the project as a way to reduce waste sent to the state’s Central Landfill while creating “clean, renewable energy” through pyrolysis, which applies high heat to material in the absence of oxygen.
Now, the “plastics-burning industry” is trying to bring a similar technology to Rhode Island, Budris said, and it is targeting areas, such as the low-income neighborhoods in Providence, that already bear unacceptably high environmental burdens.
The US Environmental Protection Agency recently published a list of 40 gasification and pyrolysis plants that are operating or near operational, he said. Almost half of them are in states that have passed deregulatory laws, and many are in or near communities of color, low-income communities, or communities of limited English proficiency, he said.
“By design, the plastics-burning industry is expanding most rapidly where there is little oversight or accountability and where historically marginalized and overburdened communities are at highest risk,” Budris said, adding that Lombardo’s bill “would bring this frightening and damaging trend to Rhode Island.”
But during Tuesday’s Senate debate, Lombardo called advanced recycling “an economic and environmental game changer.”
“Advanced recycling facilities provide us with a cutting-edge market-based opportunity to make it possible to recycle a wide variety of post-use plastics into new products,” he said. “Also, it has a huge potential for creating jobs and contributing to climate-neutral and competitive circular economy.”
Lombardo said the pyrolysis process does not burn plastics because it doesn’t involve incineration. “It takes place in the absence of oxygen, so there is no combustion,” he said.
During the April 24 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Lombardo said his bill has been amended to require that the “advanced recycling” plants be within a one mile of “a state facility,” including the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (Central Landfill in Johnston) or the Narragansett Bay Commission (sewage treatment plant in Providence).
The bill requires the plants to be located in a “designated industrial zone or commercial port facility that does not abut a residential community” or “an environmental justice area,” and they must be at least one mile from any bordering municipality and state border.
Lombardo the legislation would allow a company to build a plant in Rhode Island that would put 100 construction workers to work for almost a year while adding 30 to 70 high-paying jobs, depending on the size of project. He said 18 states have passed similar legislation, and seven states have built or are building these types of plants.
He talked about the vast amounts of plastic placed the trash or recycling bins each day, saying only 8.7 percent of plastics are recycled and 12 percent are incinerated. “The rest of it ends up in our landfill and our precious oceans,” he said.
But Senator Kendra Anderson, a Warwick Democrat, spoke against the bill, saying, “Advanced recycling sounds a little to me like ‘clean coal.’ Advanced recycling is a great marketing tool. It really sounds like we are going to recycle these plastics, but in actuality the amount of plastic that recycled into something usable is very small.”
Anderson said she shares Lombardo’s concerns about the amount of plastic being produced. “I agree we have a huge plastics problem, and it’s getting bigger every day,” she said. “But this is not the answer.”
Senator Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat, said she represents that Port of Providence, where neighboring communities have high asthma rates and where many “harmful facilities” have been located over the years. Although the bill would prohibit “advanced recycling facilities” from being located in “environmental justice areas,” she noted that those areas have not been defined in state law yet.
“So there is no authentic protection for these communities,” Mack said, urging legislators who represent Providence to vote against the bill.
The Senate’s Democratic leaders, including Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, and Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, voted for the bill, along with the Senate’s five Republicans
Lombardo showed the Senate Judiciary Committee the Brightmark video while offering this disclaimer: “I am by no means promoting Brightmark Corporation, and its facility in Indiana is not yet fully functional. This video will only show the process of advanced recycling and pyrolysis from raw material to a finished product.”
In the video, the boy says the Indiana plant will convert 100,000 tons of plastic a year into 18 million gallons of fuel “that can power trucks and other things” and 6 million gallons of wax “that can make candles and stuff.”
The boy’s father, an engineer at the Brightmark plant, says, “This is the world’s largest plastic renewal facility. We have plans to expand worldwide, and the next ones are probably going to be even bigger, up to four to eight times bigger. That’s really exciting. It’s going to change the world.”
But environmental groups in Rhode Island say that wouldn’t change the world for the better.
In a joint statement, groups such as Climate Action Rhode Island, Save the Bay, Climate Jobs Rhode Island, and the Environment Council of Rhode Island urged the Senate to reject the legislation.
“So-called ‘advanced recycling’ facilities use a high-heat process to turn waste plastic into plastic-derived fuels, toxic chemicals, and waste byproducts,” the group said. “This process is highly polluting, energy-intensive, unproven, and creates dirty fuels. The petrochemical industry wants (Lombardo’s bill) so that it can keep us hooked on a climate-damaging cycle of making and burning plastic.”
The group also emphasized that the bill would limit the plants to within a mile of the Central Landfill Johnston and the Narragansett Bay Commission headquarters in South Providence. “(The amended bill) would force communities that are already overburdened by dirty facilities to serve as sacrifice zones for plastic-burning plants while stripping those communities of their right to a public permitting process,” they said. “That is environmental injustice in action.”
Representative Stephen M. Casey, a Woonsocket Democrat, is sponsoring a companion bill in the House. The bill has been referred to the House Corporations Committee, but no hearing has been held.