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Bill to regulate “advanced recycling” as manufacturing in N.H. heads to Sununu for signature

A window for plastic recycling at the Hooksett transfer station
Mara Hoplamazian for NHPR
A window for plastic recycling at the Hooksett transfer station

Lawmakers in the New Hampshire House and Senate have passed a bill some say could help recycle more plastic in New Hampshire. But critics of the effort, which is backed by chemical industry lobbyists, say it distracts from other, more serious measures aimed at reducing the amount of plastics going into landfills.

The bill would classify companies that use a new technique to break down plastics into new materials as manufacturers instead of as solid waste facilities, reducing some of the regulatory procedures those firms must follow.

It now heads to Gov. Chris Sununu for a signature, after the Senate concurred with a House amendment on Thursday.

The legislation was introduced by Sen. Kevin Avard, a Republican from Nashua, who told a House committee that it could bring “advanced recycling” to New Hampshire. Similar versions of the bill, which was brought forward by Avard at the request of the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for chemical companies and plastics manufacturers, have been passed in at least 18 other states, according to the group.

Advanced recycling facilities use a variety of technologies to break down used plastics – which are made from fossil fuels – into their original building blocks. The resulting product, which some liken to a soup, can then be used to make new plastics, or as fuel to be burned.

A House amendment to the New Hampshire bill would prevent advanced recycling facilities from selling their products as fuel for energy, but would allow them to use some products for fuel within the facility.

The chemical process is different from what we think of as recycling now, where water bottles or milk jugs are shredded and melted, said Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association.

Advanced recyclers can process types of plastic that aren’t easily recycled through the process currently in use, and remove color from plastics entirely. Bissonnette said ideally, consumers and producers should reduce the amount of plastic used in the first place.

“But right now the reality is that we do have a lot of plastics that are currently being landfilled or incinerated and certain plastics that are not as easily able to be mechanically recycled,” she said. “So I do think that at least looking at advanced recycling as one of several possible ways to address the plastics challenge that we have is something that is worth at least considering.”

Mike Wimsatt, the director of the Waste Management Division at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, agreed. He testified in support of the bill, saying the legislation could bring these new facilities to New Hampshire.

“That might help to increase the rate of recycling for plastics in the state,” he said.

But the methods used by advanced recyclers are not proven to work on a commercial scale in the United States, opponents contend. Advanced recycling technology, which isbacked by oil and chemical companies, could result in significant environmental impacts.

Advanced recycling is also not yet subject to federal regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency is still collecting data to determine how to handle the technologies moving forward.

Peter Blair, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said the bill moving through New Hampshire’s legislature is part of a national lobbying campaign to deregulate these new technologies.

“We're significantly concerned because this is an unproven area of technology, and we should be increasing the amount of regulation for this, not deregulating it,” Blair said.

Regulating advanced recycling facilities as manufacturers, instead of as solid waste facilities, would exempt those facilities from some of the regulatory processes that normal recyclers are subject to, according to Blair. That includes requirements that proposed projects receive public notice and comment, and that they receive a “public benefit determination,” which shows they benefit the public.

“It's critical to understanding the role the facility is going to play in our waste management system, [and] whether it's going to be economically viable, which is extremely important given the history of these facilities,” he said.

The new facilities would still be subject to environmental regulations as manufacturers.

Blair is also concerned that focusing on advanced recycling as a solution to New Hampshire’s plastics problem is a distraction from other, potentially more serious solutions.

“Things like bottle bills, getting more…material recovery facilities established in New Hampshire, looking at things like extended producer responsibility for packaging, which really makes the companies that produce all this polluting plastic responsible for taking care of it,” he said.

A bill that would have established a bottle recycling program, and another that would have allowed towns to regulate single-use plastic bags, have both been held up in the House this session.

Corrected: May 20, 2022 at 3:53 PM EDT
An early version of this story misidentified the Northeast Resource Recovery Association.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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