Hochul Pushes Changes to Carpet Bill, Igniting Bitter Debate Over ‘Chemical Recycling’

Some environmentalists say the amendments would allow unacceptable pollution. Others argue they’re missing the point.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   December 23, 2022
New York throws out hundreds of millions of pounds of carpet per year. | New York Focus Illustration

GOVERNOR KATHY HOCHUL is seeking to rewrite sections of a carpet recycling bill in a way that critics say could open the way to controversial “chemical recycling,” leaving backers of the legislation in tense disagreement over how to respond.

The bill, passed in May, would make New York just the second state after California to require manufacturers to take back and recycle carpets, creating an “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) program similar to those in place for prescription drugs or electronic waste. It includes a strict definition of recycling which rules out a suite of technologies that break down scrap plastics into their original molecules in order to transform them into new plastics. The approach, called “chemical recycling” and touted by petrochemical companies as the path to a “circular economy,” can be highly polluting.

Draft amendments proposed by the governor and shared with New York Focus would remove the list of prohibited chemical recycling technologies from the carpet bill and give the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) more leeway to decide what counts as recycling.

Some environmental advocates are dead set against the amendments, casting them as reopening a dangerous loophole they worked hard to shut when the bill passed this spring. Prominent groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and New York Public Interest Research Group have allied with the scrappier Beyond Plastics to try to block the amendments, which one of the bill’s sponsors said violate the “whole premise” of the legislation.

Other backers of the legislation, including the Sierra Club and Citizens Campaign for the Environment, say the significance of the amendments is being blown out of proportion especially since the DEC already excludes most of the technologies from its definition of recycling. A showdown isn’t worth the risk of spurring Hochul to veto the entire bill, they argue. If she does, hundreds of millions of pounds more carpet will likely wind up in landfills.

“It’s more than frustrating. It’s become absurd,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Every year, that seems to be another excuse not to do the EPR bills in New York state. There’s no reason that this simple law is moving at pre-global warming glacial speed.”

Eric Goldstein, senior attorney and New York City environment director at the NRDC, said the prohibition on chemical recycling is critical to the law’s success.

“This legislation shouldn’t be a backdoor way of giving a blessing to unproven technologies like chemical recycling that the plastics industry is seeking to advance,” he said.

There’s no reason that this simple law is moving at pre-global warming glacial speed.

Adrienne Esposito, Citizens Campaign for the Environment

One major player in that industry is also in the fray: chemical giant Eastman, a former subsidiary of Kodak. The company is a major force in chemical recycling, producing plastics that wind up in Patagonia jackets, Nalgene water bottles, and Warby Parker glasses.

Eastman registered lobbyists late last year with Brown & Weinraub, a top Albany firm, and has since spent more than $120,000 seeking to influence lawmakers on recycling issues. It has continued to lobby the governor’s office on the carpet bill since it was passed, filings show. The company also made a series of campaign contributions to New York politicians starting in May — its first in more than 20 years — including $1,000 to Hochul’s campaign on June 9.

The company was a relative latecomer to New York’s carpet recycling debate. Versions of a collection bill have been floating around since 2011; the one that finally passed was spurred by a coalition of carpet industry and environmental groups, and dates back at least to the beginning of last year. But it only picked up steam after Assemblymember Steve Englebright, chair of the chamber’s environmental committee, signed on this February.

AS MOMENTUM GREW, the bill drew the attention of more environmentalists, including Judith Enck, president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics and former regional administrator at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Enck feared that, without explicit prohibitions to the contrary, the bill could give big polluters a foothold in the nascent carpet recycling industry. She successfully pressed her case to lawmakers, and the bill was expanded to rule out three forms of chemical recycling — pyrolysis, gasification, and solvolysis — which break plastic fibers down using heat, pressure, or powerful solvents.

Those are the words Hochul is now seeking to strip out. Her office did not respond to requests for comment on the amendments, but several backers of the legislation offered a straightforward rationale: DEC regulations already exclude pyrolysis and gasification from the state’s definition of recycling. Including them in this bill would be redundant, they argue.

Because of the state’s climate law, “​​there is a very concerted effort to make sure that all language is synchronized, that there aren’t redundancies, that there aren’t conflicting definitions,” said Roger Downs, conservation director of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. “Any unnecessary verbiage that gets into bills to emphasize a point, however good, may be confusing or harmful or open things up to interpretation or lawsuits later.”

Enck counters that, because regulations lack the force of law, they are actually more vulnerable to court challenges. And they leave the governor’s office a lot more discretion to make changes as it sees fit. “If you really want to block these technologies, you put it in the statute, which is exactly what the legislature did,” she said.

Eastman’s investment in the debate suggests it, too, may see it as more than semantic. As of now, the company is one of very few in the world using carpet waste in chemical recycling: Eastman’s flagship plant in Kingsport, Tennessee, uses a form of gasification it dubs “carbon renewal” to transform waste plastics including carpet scrap into new items. (A portion of the plastics are burned as fuel to power the operation.)

The plant, which also burns coal, is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the US chemical industry, and dumps millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the surrounding environment, according to EPA records. Eastman is also building three new plants to exploit a form of solvolysis using methanol, which will likewise make fresh plastics from carpet and other textile scrap.

“Our goal with any proposed EPR program is to see that the greatest amount of material is collected and recycled. To that end, Eastman believes such measures should allow for all material-to-material recycling technologies, provided they adhere to principles that ensure the protection of the environment and surrounding communities,” Eastman spokesperson Kristin Ross told New York Focus.

Asked about communications with Hochul’s office, Ross said the company “continue[s] to engage with all stakeholders to offer feedback.”

NEW YORKERS DISCARD more than 500 million pounds of carpets every year, the state reported in its 2010 solid waste plan. Less than 1 percent of that gets recycled. The rest goes to landfills like Seneca Meadows, where trash sits more than 20 stories high.

The bill passed in May seeks to turn the situation around, requiring the state to recycle at least three-quarters of discarded carpets within the next two decades. It would also require carpets sold in New York to include at least 30 percent recycled materials within five years after the DEC finalizes an implementation plan.

All of the parties currently battling over the law say they support those central aims. The state’s own climate plan, approved on Monday, cited carpet recycling as a necessary step in shrinking New York’s mountains of solid waste. So did the 2010 solid waste plan, which described carpets as low-hanging fruit for recycling because of industry buy-in.

And yet, more than a decade later, the effort is held up in 11th-hour negotiations between the governor, lawmakers, and lobbyists.

Longtime backers of the carpet bill are furious that a fight over three words is threatening to derail the whole thing.

“At this point, it doesn’t matter to us” whether the final bill includes the amendments or not, Esposito said. “We’ve been working on carpet recycling for 10 years. … If we find out that we need to amend the law in a year or two from now, we can do that. But we cannot keep discussing the same problem for over a decade.”

David Bender, CEO of the carpet recycling firm Circular Polymers, echoed her frustration.

“In this case, I feel like the enemy of good is perfect,” he said speaking to New York Focus from the company’s California plant. The facility uses all-electric equipment to manually process discarded carpets, separating out sand — which is sold for use in construction — and refining the remaining plastic to turn into new products.

This is Exhibit A on the abuse of the chapter amendment process. It’s fundamentally anti-democratic.

Judith Enck, Beyond Plastics

This is the process environmentalists want to see proliferate. It uses relatively little power and water, Bender says, and has helped California increase its carpet recycling rate to more than 30 percent in the decade since the program was launched.

Circular Polymers sells the bulk of its plastic to fellow manual recyclers, who melt it into products like car parts. Some also go to Eastman: Bender says a little less than 10 percent of his sales go to the chemical recycling market.

Bender plans to open a plant in New York if the carpet bill is signed, whether it includes the chapter amendments or not. A veto would jeopardize that.

Enck said that the blame will fall squarely on Hochul if she vetoes the bill.

“This is Exhibit A on the abuse of the chapter amendment process,” Enck said. “Its fundamentally anti-democratic. The full legislature voted to adopt something, and then the governor tries to convince, essentially, the sponsors, behind closed doors, on making a major change to the law.”

But Enck also made clear that she would rather see the bill killed for now than amended as Hochul has proposed. If the protections against chemical recycling are removed, she says, “that’s a net environmental damage. We don’t want that.”

As of now, the bill’s supporters say there is still hope of breaking the impasse. Hochul has until December 28 to act.

ITS UNCLEAR just how much of a role Eastman has played in the final negotiations, but the company casts a long shadow. Eastman insists that chemical recycling can be a net environmental good if done in a responsible way. But its own environmental record is not flattering.

Its Kingsport plant emits more greenhouse gases than all but four other chemical plants in the US, of some 450 reporting to the EPA. For 2021, it was in the top two percent of emitters across all industries listed in the EPA’s database.

Eastman’s Kingsport operations have also racked up more than $200,000 in fines over the last decade for consistent violations of the Clean Air Act. An audit published earlier this month by Tennessees comptroller found that the area around the plant was the only one in the state exceeding air pollution limits, due to high levels of sulfur dioxide produced by coal burning. The company is in the process of switching the plant’s coal-fired boilers over to natural gas, but has made slow progress.

The plant also dumps millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into landfills and the South Fork Holston River, EPA filings show — though half as many as it did a decade ago. That includes thousands of pounds of methanol, the solvent used in its newest polyester recycling technology, which has been linked to birth defects.

“What we’ve learned from hard experience is that if you’re using large quantities of hazardous and toxic chemicals in a process, that can’t be contained,” said Veena Singla, a senior scientist at the NRDC. “There are emissions, there are releases, it’s inevitable.”

Eastman has nevertheless positioned itself as a leader in the circular economy.

The company’s latest sustainability report says it is taking steps to reduce pollution and protect health and safety. Moreover, it says it is advancing global environmental causes by renewing plastics that would otherwise go into a landfill. A study it commissioned in 2020 found that its waste gasification process produced 22 percent less carbon emissions than coal gasification, which it still conducts at the Tennessee plant. With improvements, it projects the technology could reduce those emissions by up to half.

The company also insists that its processes are intended to complement, not replace, manual recycling. In a recent interview with a trade publication, the president of Eastman’s plastics division, Scott Ballard, acknowledged that mechanical recycling is more climate friendly. But for the plastics most difficult to recycle, “you need the best next technology to be able to address that,” he said.

Bender, the carpet recycler, says his lowest-grade plastics might be able to find outlets besides chemical recycling, but not as easily.

Enck worries that if chemical recycling companies get their foot in the door now, it will undermine the market for mechanical recycling. “This is a huge policy decision that will dim any chances of real carpet recycling in New York,” she said.

Singla, the NRDC scientist, said there’s a risk that chemical recycling will incentivize the production of plastics that otherwise might be phased out.

“If the supposed solution to a problem is compounding problems and creating more problems, thats not a solution,” Singla said. “It’s simply not acceptable. Honestly, this whole category of hard-to-recycle plastics — we need to stop making them, and focus on materials that we can effectively recycle in our current systems without creating more environmental and health harms.”

Englebright, the bill’s Assembly sponsor, told New York Focus that the amendments being discussed are “not something that would be consistent with the whole premise of the bill,” or with the state’s climate law.

Brian Kavanagh, the bill’s Senate sponsor, was not available for comment. His spokesperson Stanley Davis told Politico, who first reported the chapter amendment debate, that Kavanagh was “still in negotiations with the governor on the bill language.”

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
Also filed in New York State

The Senate will consider Daniel Martuscello III’s bid to run New York’s prison and parole agency. His supporters point to his decades of experience. His opponents say that’s the problem.

After New York’s top court overturned Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, state lawmakers want to let prosecutors bring evidence from past uncharged sexual assaults.

State lawmakers are set to introduce a sweeping proposal for a public takeover of Central Hudson, the region’s scandal-plagued gas and electric utility.

Also filed in Climate and Environment

The Assembly rejected legislation that would have sped up New York’s transition away from gas.

The Assembly and Senate want to beef up labor standards and farmland protections for clean energy projects. Developers say that would slow down the energy transition.

State investigators accused the gas utility of “sloppiness” in managing customer funds, but took a light touch in enforcement.