After dying in the House, advanced recycling bill hangs on in the Senate

By: - February 5, 2021 12:01 am
Recycling dumpster

A recycling container in Richmond, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

While a proposal to add language to state code classifying advanced recycling as a manufacturing rather than waste management activity died abruptly in House committee this week, the legislation is still alive in the Senate.

“I’ve got to be honest, on the one hand people say, ‘We need fewer landfills, let’s regulate landfills, let’s get rid of landfills.’ On the other hand, this is a bill that says, OK, we’re going to bring in an industry that’s going to create something from this waste, and people are opposed to that,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, during a Thursday meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. 

Opponents, however, pointed out the laws proposed this session have no effect on whether advanced recycling facilities can open in Virginia. One company, Braven Environmental, has already announced plans to build a plant in Cumberland County after receiving $215,000 in grant funds from the commonwealth as an economic incentive.

Instead, the twin laws — House Bill 2173 from Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, and Senate Bill 1164 from Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta — aim to define advanced recycling as manufacturing rather than waste management, bringing them outside the purview of Virginia’s Solid Waste Management Act. 

Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor told the Senate panel Thursday that the change “primarily is a code clarification as I understand it” and confirmed that the classification means that the facilities would not be subject to the regulations imposed on landfills. 

“I believe the way our regulations are written right now it might not be classified as solid waste anyway,” he added.

Asked whether the bill would mean that an advanced recycling facility would not need to obtain a solid waste permit from the agency, a DEQ spokesperson pointed to a section of the Virginia Administrative Code that states that plastics are exempt from solid waste management regulations “provided that they are reclaimed or temporarily stored incidentally to reclamation, are not accumulated speculatively, and are managed without creating an open dump, hazard or a public nuisance.”

Philip Musegaas, an attorney with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, said the “plain language” of the legislation “weakens regulation of chemical conversion facilities like the ones we’re talking about and creates permitting confusion.” 

“All we are asking, very simply, is that these facilities be regulated consistently as all other waste management type facilities are in Virginia currently without this change in definition,” he said during Thursday’s hearing. “Landfills, incinerators, waste transfer stations are all regulated under the Solid Waste Management Act.” 

Senate lawmakers remained unpersuaded, with several, including Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, characterizing opponents as simply not liking plastic. 

“For the life of me, I can’t understand why, if we have the opportunity to do something else with that product, we wouldn’t take advantage of it,” he said.

While the measure remains alive in the Senate, it died in the House Wednesday after Plum struck his bill from the docket of the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs.  

“Hindsight tells me I should have done some education ahead of time,” said Plum. “The negative reaction is not something I was prepared for either.”

While the General Assembly passed a little-noticed law providing tax benefits to advanced recycling companies in 2020, Plum’s bill aiming to classify the activity as manufacturing sparked a backlash this session, with environmental groups like Sierra Club Virginia mounting an aggressive campaign against it and a number of delegates balking at the lack of information surrounding the emerging industry. 

“I still intend to stay interested in the subject and think we really need to recognize there are alternatives that may be new to us, particularly in the waste sector. We need to be open to those and not against them in a kneejerk fashion,” Plum told the Mercury. Still, he added, “My bill going away doesn’t say that the industry itself won’t move ahead.” 

If Hanger’s version of the bill clears the Senate this week before crossover, the deadline by which each chamber must complete its own business, it will still need to gain the approval of the House before it can be signed into law.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]