Environment

The bad idea that never dies: Pyrolysis is back at the Rhode Island State House

“We have stepped up, year after year, to oppose pyrolysis and bringing up the dangers of letting this technology into Rhode Island,” said Kai Salem, Vice President of Policy at the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI). “It’s frustrating coming back year after year feeling like we showed the legislature that this technology is dirty and unacceptable in Rhode Island and then have that conversation again. We’ve been talking about this for many more years than I have been a part of ECRI.”
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Published on April 28, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday took up Senator Frank Lombardo (Democrat, District 25, Johnston)’s bill S2788, which would allow the process of “advanced recycling” in Rhode Island. The bill is cosponsored by Senators Frank Lombardi (Democrat, District 26, Cranston), Frank Ciccone (Democrat, District 7, North Providence), Hanna Gallo (Democrat, District 27, Cranston), and Stephen Archambault (Democrat, District 22, Smithfield, Johnston, North Providence). It was was vigorously defended by the bipartisan efforts of Democratic Senator Frank Lombardi and Republican  Gordon Rogers (Republican, District 21, Coventry, Foster, Scituate, West Greenwich), both members of the committee.

“Advanced recycling” is merely pyrolysis by another name, an attempt by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a fossil fuel, pro-plastics lobbying group, to greenwash a process that serves no environmental purpose, but aims to keep the world hooked on plastics, all of which are derived from fossil fuels. The ACC’s plan to greenwash and expand the process has been detailed here.

During the committee hearing Senator Lombardo played a video for the committee, which featured children playing with plastic dinosaurs and explaining the benefits of pyrolysis, a process they clearly do not understand. To some the video was cute, to others it was a video using children to advertise a technology that will help to destroy their future.

“When I watched the video I thought to myself, ‘Who would be in opposition to such legislation?'” said Senator Frank Lombardi, who seemed impressed by the video. [Note that Senators Frank Lombardo and Frank Lombardi are different people.]

To answer Senator Lombardi’s question, every environmental group in Rhode Island opposes the legislation and pyrolysis, including CLF. You can read CLF’s testimony in opposition to pyrolysis here, courtesy of Kevin Budris, CLF Senior Attorney for the CLF Zero Waste Project.

Senator Lombardo’s bill recasts pyrolysis as a form of recycling. The newly introduced legislation would exempt pyrolysis (aka “gasification” aka “advanced recycling”) facilities from being regulated as solid waste facilities; and reclassify post-use polymers (aka plastics) as non-solid waste IF the refuse is used in pyrolysis.

Reclassifying these facilities allows pyrolysis to escape certain kinds of environmental reviews, though air source and water discharge permits would still be required as these facilities would be regulated as manufacturers, not waste disposal companies.

During the committee hearing Senator Lombardi acted as an “advocate” [his word] for the position of the American Chemistry Council, saying, “Obviously the authors of this bill [the ACC] have some working knowledge of the industry… There must have been a rationale for them to say ‘This was not solid waste.'”

Last year reporters Joe Brock, Valerie Volcovici and John Geddie released a piece through Reuters that explained that to curb the expansion of polluting plastics, some states are considering “polluter-pays” laws that “would shift the cost of waste collection from taxpayers to the companies that make and use plastic.” The ACC claims such laws will hurt the economy, and, in typical neoliberal fashion, are calling for the deregulation of pyrolysis as a solution to the problem of waste plastic.

And the ACC is winning this battle. At least 18 states, including Rhode Island, have passed or are considering the deregulation of pyrolysis facilities. Far fewer states have passed or are considering polluter-pays laws. Despite local environmental group support for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence)’s Plastic Waste Reduction Act (S2446 / H7065) his bill is far from a polluter-pays law of the kind passed in Maine or Oregon.

“Plastics are made of oil, they’re made of carbon, and the climate crisis of course is caused by carbon,” said Kai Salem, Vice President of Policy at the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI) in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “One thing we’re seeing, as it becomes clear that we can no longer use fossil fuels to power our energy systems, is fossil fuel companies investing in plastics and making sure they have a lifeline for their industry… This technology proposal is a part of all that.”

Attentive readers may recall last year’s Medrecycler debacle, in which a New Jersey based company attempted to build a medical waste pyrolysis center in a residential community in West Warwick on the East Greenwich border. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management ultimately denied the facility a permit last July.

Getting to that denial required the mass mobilization of three communities under the guidance of community organizers like Denise Lopez, the efforts of state legislators and the intervention of the Rhode Island Attorney General‘s office. Lopez testified against the pyrolysis legislation at Tuesday’s hearing.

Governor Daniel McKee signed legislation (H5923Aaa / S0527) prohibiting some forms of pyrolysis, specifically, “new medical waste incinerators near residential neighborhoods, schools, nursing facilities and delicate environmental areas” last year. But that bill is, by design, not broad enough to prevent the facilities Lombardo is seeking to deregulate.

On Tuesday Craig Cookson, Senior Director of Plastics Sustainability at the ACC, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that “all [Senator Lombardo’s] bill does is … regulate [pyrolysis] facilities as manufacturers” of plastic feedstocks… “This is not deregulating, they’re just regulated more appropriately as manufacturers.”

But pyrolysis isn’t just manufacturing. It’s the melting down of waste plastics into a host of chemicals including plastic feedstock, fossil fuels (for later burning) and toxic chemicals such as dioxins and benzene.

Perhaps the strangest testimony of the evening came from Vincent Mesolella, who chairs the Narragansett Bay Commission. Mesolella is rightfully worried about the large amounts of waste plastics his agency has to deal with. Speaking about his opportunity to visit a pyrolysis facility in California, Mesolella, after noting that he was worried about the kinds of gases that such facilities generate, said, “I witnessed the emissions from the pyrolysis process, and I can tell you it’s nothing more than a vapor. As a matter of fact I can tell you that I climbed the ladder, and all but stuck my face directly into the escape chamber and there were zero odors and there were zero gas emissions that are detectable, at least my human senses…”

“We know that not all toxics are visible to human senses,” countered Kai Salem, during her testimony.

Salem also said, “We have stepped up, year after year, to oppose pyrolysis and bringing up the dangers of letting this technology into Rhode Island. It’s frustrating coming back year after year feeling like we showed the legislature that this technology is dirty and unacceptable in Rhode Island and then have that conversation again. We’ve been talking about this for many more years than I have been a part of ECRI.”

The bill was held for further study, but don’t expect this bill to die easily.

You can watch the hearing here:

Photo at the top used under Creative Commons license accessed here.

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