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Michigan lawmakers OK recycling reform. Critics call it ‘burning hot garbage’

Proponents of changes to Michigan's recycling law say they would incentivize removing plastics, such as these PET bottles, from the waste stream. (Shutterstock photo)
  • Michigan lawmakers OK major recycling reforms
  • Environmentalists oppose change allowing ‘chemical recycling’
  • Industry groups say it will mean less plastic in landfills

LANSING — A long-debated package to reform Michigan’s solid waste recycling laws is heading to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after several last-minute changes were added that are favored by industry and opposed by environmentalists.

The Michigan Senate approved the revised legislation Wednesday evening in a series of votes that blurred party lines, with the main bill passing 22-10. The House signed off on the changes early Thursday morning, approving the main bill 74-23.

Some Democrats spoke out against new “chemical recycling” language that would allow manufacturers to use “pyrolysis” “gasification” or other chemical processes to break down plastic waste for use in other products. 

"This legislation is burning hot garbage," said Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. "What we're talking about is redefining burning hot garbage as chemical recycling as part of a greenwashing campaign."

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The revised language, proposed by Republican Sen. Aric Nesbitt of Lawton, defines “chemical recycling” as a process for converting “post-use polymers” into raw materials that could be used in other products.

Industry groups and other supporters say that would help keep plastics out of landfills by allowing a new way for industry to reuse what would otherwise be waste. Environmentalists contend the revised legislation supports the plastics industry at a time when society should be reducing its reliance on plastic. 

The amendments are part of a larger bill package that aims to boost Michigan’s low recycling rate by disincentivizing landfills. That includes new requirements for local governments to craft materials management plans focused on diverting waste from landfills, new fees and oversight for landfills and the expansion of state grant funding to support recycling efforts.

Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, praised years of work that went into developing the recycling legislation — an effort that began under former Gov. Rick Snyder — but said the last-minute changes “take us away from our mission to serve the communities and the people of Michigan.”

Bayer proposed an amendment that would have removed the chemical recycling language, which she said could allow manufacturers to "avoid proper environmental controls" that are important for public safety. 

Her proposal failed in a 14-18 vote.

At issue is a technology sometimes referred to as advanced recycling or chemical recycling,  which uses heat or chemicals to convert waste such as plastic into new products, such as other plastics.

A release from the Michigan Recycling Coalition, which helped negotiate the bill package, noted "much consternation" about the late amendments, but said such changes don't change the state's regulatory structure and the facilities in question are "thoroughly regulated by other areas of environmental law like those governing air quality and industrial groundwater."

“The changes to Michigan solid waste policy embodied in the bill package mitigate the policy preference for landfill disposal of solid waste," said Kerrin O'Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition. "Counties will soon be funded and incentivized to plan for needed infrastructure, programs, and services to manage waste more productively through reduction, recycling, composting, and more.”

Industry groups say the legislation merely clarifies how Michigan will treat emerging technologies that help manage society’s plastic waste.

Mike Alaimo, of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday that facilities using such technologies give new life to hard-to-recycle plastic that otherwise would “simply end up in the landfill.”

But facilities in other states have frequently failed to deliver on such promises, sometimes resulting in plastic instead being incinerated. Environmentalists contend they’re mostly a marketing tool for the plastics industry, giving it cover to produce more plastic by promising to turn the waste into something useful.

The “chemical recycling” amendment is the most controversial of many Senate changes to a bill package that passed the House in April after years of bipartisan negotiations. The bills are designed to amend Michigan's solid waste management laws in an effort to boost Michigan’s recycling rate.

“It undermines the intent of the whole bill package,” said Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director for the Michigan Sierra Club, adding that it’s “part of a huge national push from the plastics industry to ramp up their production.”

The package never received a committee hearing in the Senate before it was pulled from committee Wednesday with lawmakers ultimately voting on a significantly-altered version.

State Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, who was a key sponsor of the original package, told Bridge on Tuesday he was frustrated with the last-minute, behind-the-scenes changes

Howell voted for the final package early Thursday, saying he was reassured by staff at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy that the “chemical recycling” facilities in question would still be adequately regulated.

But the process that led to Wednesday’s Senate vote, he said, was “abysmal.” Howell has spoken out against the existence of the lame duck session between the November election and new term in January, which he said lends itself to “this kind of stuff.”

“There’s a reason why a legislative chamber has specific committees to vet bills and make sure everybody is heard,” Howell said. “And I work very hard at the House level to make sure in my Natural Resources Committee, that we give everybody that opportunity. The Senate has chosen to use the backdoor.”

Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy wouldn’t say Wednesday whether the governor would sign an altered package, but he said modernizing Michigan’s solid waste laws is a priority and “the administration will continue to monitor these bills as they move through the legislative process.”

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