Backed by 40 cosponsors, Rep. Michelle E. McGaw has introduced legislation to prohibit any type of new high-heat waste processing facilities in Rhode Island. The legislation (2023-H 5142) is a response to efforts in Rhode Island and nationwide backed by the American Chemistry Council to reclassify the process of high-heat processing of plastic waste as manufacturing instead of waste management. “In 2023, the Ocean State should loudly and clearly reject any plan to fill our environment with toxins from the processing of plastic waste. Our state must not be fooled by the plastics industry’s effort to rebrand and protect itself at a time when we all know we need to drastically reduce our use of its products,” said Representative McGaw (D-Dist. 71, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton). “We should prohibit these facilities in no uncertain terms and protect our people and our environment from this dangerous type of pollution.”
The plastics industry has been pushing state legislatures across the country to allow a process it calls “advanced recycling,” which involves disposing of plastic waste by processing it at high temperatures. Few such facilities exist in the United States, but those that do don’t recycle plastic into other plastics; instead they produce synthetic fuel, which is burned there or elsewhere, and waste byproducts. Environmental groups say the process emits toxins and just as much carbon pollution as ordinary incineration, both from the fuel used for the process, and in the use of the resulting synthetic fuel.
According to Just Zero — a Massachusetts-based organization dedicated to just and equitable solutions to climate-damaging and toxic production, consumption and waste disposal practices — there are currently only six operational commercial advanced recycling facilities in the 21 states where the plastics industry has succeeded in getting lawmakers to exempt advanced recycling from environmental protection laws. Just Zero and other environmental advocates warn that air emissions, chemicals and waste products generated at these facilities can include lead, mercury, chromium, benzene, toluene, arsenic and dioxins – all of which pose significant risks to human health and the environment.
All six of those facilities employ pyrolysis – the same high-heat process that Rhode Island rejected for medical waste two years ago. At that time, facing a proposal on the West Warwick-East Greenwich border to process medical waste from around the region, the General Assembly passed legislation (2021-H 5923Aaa, 2021-S 0527) to prohibit new high-heat medical waste processing facilities near residential neighborhoods, schools, nursing facilities and delicate environmental areas.
Representative McGaw’s bill would expand protection for Rhode Island, prohibiting all types of high-heat waste processing, not just for medical waste, and applying that ban statewide. “Rhode Islanders and the General Assembly spoke loudly and clearly in 2021 when we said we didn’t want pyrolysis of medical waste in our state. Advanced recycling is just pyrolysis for plastic waste. It’s not manufacturing — it’s solid waste management, and we need to treat it as such, keeping all our environmental protections in place. Pyrolysis requires a lot of fuel to keep temperatures high, and it doesn’t make toxic, polluting chemicals disappear. It’s not the panacea that the plastic industry wants us to think it is, and I doubt there are many Rhode Islanders who would welcome this type of facility in their town,” said Representative McGaw.
Representative McGaw, who introduced similar legislation last year, added that allowing such facilities would also run counter to the Act on Climate, landmark legislation enacted by the General Assembly in 2021 to commit to a carbon-neutral future. “The plastics industry has created the myth of advanced recycling in an insidious, self-serving effort to change the narrative about plastic pollution and fossil fuels so we will not reduce our reliance on its products. We must not be duped,” said Representative McGaw. “Plastic pyrolysis is quite clearly the opposite of what we should be doing, and our state must stay focused on our commitment to reduce our use of fossil fuels and petroleum products. Rhode Island must stand up to them and keep moving toward the cleaner, safer and more sustainable environmental future we need.”