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Maine Legislature backs bill to proactively regulate faux recycling process


Maine Legislature backs bill to proactively regulate faux recycling process

Feb 15, 2024 | 3:39 pm ET
By Lauren McCauley
Maine Legislature backs bill to proactively regulate faux recycling process
lastic bottles are seen in a recycle factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Nov. 24, 2018. (Getty Images)

Hoping to set up strong regulations around an emerging solid waste treatment process after health and safety concerns were raised in other states, both chambers of the Maine Legislature backed a bill to define and regulate so-called “advanced recycling” facilities.

On Thursday, the House passed the measure on a party-line vote, 76-56. During debate in the Senate last week, where it passed 21-13, sponsor Sen. Anne Carney (D-Cumberland) explained that actual plastic-to-plastic recycling, where plastic waste is used to create new material that can be used in place of raw material, is still allowed. 

Most of the recycled plastic in Maine is collected and shipped to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and overseas, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, “where they are made into new products and containers.” The most recent data, from 2016, pegs Maine’s municipal solid waste recycling rate at 36.79%. Most of the remainder is landfilled.

“What this legislation focuses on is a different process which involves burning plastic in order to create gas and residue… a process very energy intensive and creates a lot of air and water pollution,” Carney explained.

Some lawmakers questioned the necessity of the new law if such a facility does not yet exist in Maine and asked whether current law would be sufficient.

Ahead of the House vote, Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), pushed back on the idea of regulating an emerging technology when he believes our current method is less than ideal.

“Burying plastics in the ground isn’t really a good solution,” Faulkingham said, referring to landfills. “There are emerging technologies, advanced recycling, and right now we should just leave our laws alone rather than trying to look into the future and stop methods that will give us a better way to deal with our plastics problem.”

During the Senate discussion, Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) asked, if such a facility wants to come to Maine, “what would existing law require?” He suggested such a plant would be classified under the DEP’s solid waste recommendations. 

Carney explained that such facilities “try to be classified as manufacturing, which is exempt from many of the laws regulating solid waste disposal.” The industry behind this emerging technology “has pushed laws in other states, like New Hampshire, specifically exempting them from those regulations.”

The bill clarifies that should one of these facilities come to Maine, they would be regulated under Maine’s solid waste laws —  and ensure that the facilities provide financial assurance for clean-up costs, should the need arise. It defines “advanced recycling” as “a process that converts municipal solid waste or plastic into basic raw materials, feedstock chemicals, waxes and lubricants through any means, including, but not limited to, gasification, pyrolysis, hydropyrolysis, solvolysis or depolymerization.”

“This bill is really designed to give the DEP clarity so if one of these facilities comes to Maine it will be regulated,” said Sen. Stacey Brenner (D-Cumberland).

Brenner pointed to the case of the Brightmark plant in Ashley, Indiana, which is now facing legal challenges after a reports of dangerous fires, spills and emissions of plastic dust. 

The output of the facility, according to documents submitted by Brightmark to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was 18% synthetic gas, which burns on site, 7% powdery residue, which Brightmark landfills and the remaining 75% of output is hydrocarbon liquid, similar to the byproduct of oil and natural gas refining, which they say can be used as “feedstock for circular plastics, fuels, blend stocks, wax and lube stocks.”

Brightmark tried to open in Georgia, Brenner said, and when asked to show that its output was creating new products, they could not show that. 

These plants “have received federal and state subsidies but they end up being economic and environmental failures,” Brenner added.

This story was updated to include more details of the bill. The byproduct details were edited from a lawmaker quote to information from Brightmark’s submission to the U.S. EPA.