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Senate may vote on long-awaited recycling reform. Which one is unclear.

plastic bottles
The Senate could vote Wednesday on an eight-bill package that aims to reform Michigan’s solid waste laws to promote recycling. But industry officials are pushing for last-minute changes. (Shutterstock)
  • After years of negotiations, the House passed bipartisan reforms to solid waste laws to boost Michigan’s recycling rate
  • The bills have failed to receive a hearing in the Senate
  • Now, they’re scheduled for a vote, while environmentalists decry an industry push for last-minute changes

After years of bipartisan work on a bill package that would reform Michigan’s solid waste laws to boost recycling and composting, lawmakers are gearing up for a potential Senate vote on the bills Wednesday.

A tentative Senate agenda for Wednesday specifies intent to see the bills through “all the way to final passage.” 

Sponsor

Still unclear, though, is just what version of the eight-bill package lawmakers will be voting on: The one passed the House in April with bipartisan support but has yet to receive a Senate hearing, or one containing changes pushed by industry groups against objections from environmentalists.

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“We do want them to move forward,” said Mike Alaimo, Director of Environmental and Energy Affairs with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “But we do have some amendments that are going to be really important for us so that the legislation works for industry.”

Industry groups want Republican legislative leaders to bring a new version to the Senate floor that changes how much say local governments have over nearby landfill siting, and inserts new language supporting controversial technologies that use heat or chemicals to turn waste into new products.

Environmentalists, who supported the version that passed the House, are decrying what they call a last-ditch push to secure language favorable to the plastics industry before Democrats take control of Lansing in January, putting environmentalists in a stronger lobbying position.

They want the Senate to either hold a vote on the House version of the bill package, House bills 4454 through 4461, or allow the legislation to die in the lame-duck session and be revived next year, when Democrats have majorities in both chambers. 

“I read this effort as part and parcel of a nationwide effort by the chemical industry to try to get themselves out from under regulation,” said Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer for the Michigan Environmental Council.

Bridge attempted to contact state Sen. Aric Nesbitt, who chairs the senate regulatory reform committee in charge of the bills, and a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, but received no responses Tuesday.

But Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, a key House sponsor of the package, expressed frustration at the behind-the-scenes push for last-minute changes. Speaking Tuesday, Howell said he planned to spend his evening poring over a draft he had received of the likely changes. If the Senate approves of a version that differs from the House-passed package, the bills will have to head back to the House for another vote.

“Obviously, this is not the best way to do legislation,” Howell said. “We’ve had months and months to go over these things.”

The proposed recycling reforms, crafted over years by a large coalition including environmentalists and industry groups, represent the culmination of an effort started under then-Gov. Rick Snyder to boost Michigan’s municipal recycling rate to 45 percent. 

The reforms include widespread amendments to Michigan’s solid waste management laws, known as part 115 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, to incentivize recycling and composting while disincentivizing sending waste to landfills.

Among the proposed changes in the version that passed the House:

  • Counties would be required to draft materials management plans, focused on diverting waste from landfills to meet recycling goals 
  • Landfills would see new construction and operation permit fees, requirements to carry more financial assurances, greater scrutiny from neighboring communities and longer periods after landfill closure during which state regulators would monitor for environmental problems. 
  • Some waste haulers would be required to provide residential recycling services
  • Allowable uses of Michigan’s Solid Waste Management Fund would expand, freeing the state to use some of the money on things like recycling education and outreach. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy would be required to provide grants for certain programs designed to boost recycling.  

Language in the House-passed version of the reform package would exempt gasification and pyrolysis – two forms of the technology — from solid waste laws so long as they were conducted using “source separated material,” or materials that have been sorted from trash. 

But after the package cleared the House in April, it stalled in the Senate when Nesbitt, R-Lawton, refused to grant it a hearing. Nesbitt, who had received sizable donations from the landfill industry as reported by MLive and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, instead pushed for a separate bill to classify a host of processes to turn plastics into other materials as “advanced recycling,” exempt from solid waste laws.

Environmentalists say they expect the proposed changes to the package in the Senate to contain similar language.

Alaimo, of the chamber, and chemicals industry groups contend such technologies offer a solution to the world’s growing plastic waste problem, offering new life for hard-to-recycle materials such as wrappers and takeout containers.

“Chemical recycling is one of those technologies that, without it, there are a number of plastic materials — think food packaging — that simply end up in the landfill,” Alaimo said.

Environmentalists dispute that, noting that such facilities frequently fail to deliver on promises to chemically transform plastic into ethanol or other products, exacerbating plastic waste in the process. They also cite concerns about emitting greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from the facilities.

Christy McGillivray, the Michigan Sierra Club's political and legislative director, called the facilities “excuses” for continued growth of a plastics industry that “should not exist.” 

“We should not be making impossible-to-recycle plastics, where the only possible option is burning them,” McGillivray said. 

Reached Tuesday, Michigan Chemistry Council Executive Director John Dulmes told Bridge Michigan he “hasn’t seen anything recent” about the package but said he supports it.

If the package passes the Senate with new language, it will need to be sent back to the House for another vote. Howell said he and his House colleagues would then face a dilemma.

He doesn’t approve of last-minute, behind-the-scenes changes to a package that was publicly vetted in the House, he said.

However, “Michigan is so backward in the recycling world,” he said. “We have such a dismal record that I very much want to see us make some progress on recycling, you know? And if we end up with half a loaf instead of a loaf, it's probably better.”

If it clears both chambers, McGillivray said, environmental groups will put pressure on Whitmer for a veto. Spokespeople for Whitmer did not respond Tuesday to questions about whether the governor would sign the bills if they reached her desk.

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