PROVIDENCE — House leaders on Tuesday announced they will not take up a bill that would clear the way for “advanced recycling” plants that use the high-heat process known as pyrolysis to turn plastic into fuel.
On June 7, a divided Senate voted 19 to 14 for the “advanced recycling” bill, which environmental groups said would set back Rhode Island’s progress in addressing climate change and matters of environmental justice.
With this year’s legislative session in its final days, opponents planned to rally outside the State House on Tuesday. But first, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, and House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, issued a joint statement, saying the bill is effectively dead this year.
“The House will not be considering legislation this year that adds advanced recycling as a definition for refuse disposal,” the House leaders said. “We are a member-driven body, and our members have spoken to us loudly and clearly that they have serious unresolved questions about this bill. We have had the best year ever regarding environmental legislation, and we do not want to take a step backward by passing this bill.”
For example, they said the Assembly has passed, or is about to pass, legislation that establishes the strongest renewable energy standard in the country, increases offshore wind capacity, reduces the use of plastic bags, and sets limits for “forever chemicals” in water and packaging.
In response, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio issued a statement saying, “We respect the House’s position on this bill, and we look forward to continuing to work productively with them to enact strong environmental legislation.”
Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said, “The Senate has led the way on environmental initiatives including the Act on Climate, procurement of offshore wind, prohibiting plastic bags, replacing lead pipes, ensuring drinking water is free of forever chemicals, and setting the nation’s most aggressive timetable to reach a 100 percent Renewable Energy Standard.”
Kevin Budris, staff attorney for the zero waste project at the Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island office, thanked Shekarchi and Blazejewski during Tuesday’s rally outside the State House.
“This bill,” he said, “would have stripped communities of their right to object to dangerous plastic burning facilities. These bills would have picked particular neighborhoods as sacrifice zones for these communities. They also would have exempted high-heat facilities from other common-sense waste regulations.”
Budris said the proposed Rhode Island legislation is part of “a nationwide pattern of injustice, inequity, and climate damage.”
He said nearly 80 percent of waste-burning facilities in the country are in “Black and brown and low-income communities,” and now the waste and petro-chemical industries are pivoting toward “so-called advanced recycling” facilities that employ processes such as pyrolysis.
“This is not an accident,” Budris said, adding that communities such as South Providence have been targeted for polluting industries for decades.
He 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.
“We hope that when we are back here next year, we are advocating for legislation that prevents this from ever happening in the future,” Budris said. “We don’t need to be back here every single year, saying no to plastic-burning facilities, no to forcing dangerous facilities on environmental justice communities. It’s time to say no to a dangerous industry forever.”
Linda Perri, president of the Washington Park Association, also spoke during the rally, saying her Providence neighborhood bears the brunt of too much pollution. She called for state officials to embrace the “clean, green economy.”
“To hell with all these polluting industries,” Perri said. “This technology, this high-heat pyrolysis, is an unproven technology, and they want to slam dunk it in our neighborhood and skirt environmental regulations around it.”
In a news release Monday, the American Chemistry Council noted that New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu signed legislation on Friday “creating a pathway for advanced recycling in the Granite State.”
In a statement Wednesday, Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, “Rhode Island’s lawmakers missed an opportunity to attract advanced recycling facilities that would create a cleaner environment and bring jobs to the Ocean State.”
Baca said more of the 90 percent of plastics don’t end up being recycled, and “advanced recycling” can remake them into new plastics. He said diverting 25 percent of the recoverable plastics in Rhode Island to an advanced recycling facility could generate up to $31 million in economic output and replace over 67,000 tons of virgin natural resources per year.
“The opponents that misinformed lawmakers and the public on this legislation bring only two things to the table: negativity and falsehoods,” Baca said. “We have sustainable solutions, backed by science, data and the hundreds of people working at advanced recycling facilities across the U.S.”
Senator Frank Lombardo III, a Johnston Democrat, championed the bill in the Senate, calling advanced recycling “an economic and environmental game changer.” He 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.
Lombardo amended his bill to require that the “advanced recycling” plants be within a 1 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).