Legal Terrain

The Plastics Problem in Massachusetts

October 12, 2023


In The Graduate, Mr. McGuire pulls aside Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, and utters “one word” of career advice – “plastics.”  Benjamin’s diffident reaction reflects his wealthy suburban character’s utter lack of direction upon graduation from college. The entire scene also served as  a sixties-era commentary on the “establishment” epitomized by Mr. McGuire and his ilk. Little did we then expect that the “you can have everything” mentality of American Express commercials would become even more deeply embedded in our American culture. Nor did we understand that the “oil crisis” of the early seventies, President Jimmy Carter’s admonition to wear a sweater, buy sub-compact cars, and adhere to the fifty-five mile per hour national speed limit, would, after a generation, eventually morph into demonization of our carbon-based economy, with plastics now a leading culprit.

There is no doubt that the continued reintroduction into our atmosphere of carbon dioxide stored deep in the earth in the form of petroleum during the Mesozoic age will inevitably result in drastic climatic change and that petroleum-based plastics pollution of rivers, oceans, and our landscape is tragic and disappointing. Aside from being a testament to our consumptive society, plastics have become the new scapegoat for environmentalists’ anger at society’s failings.  The green community is now taking on “recycling” as a major greenwashing conspiracy by the corporate powers that be.  Many treat “plastics recycling” as an oxymoron, claiming that virtually all plastics put into the recycle bin are actually disposed of.

Here at Burns & Levinson, we represent recycling companies and others who are working hard to provide a solution to the plastics problem. Aside from traditional recycling companies, which collect, separate, bale, transport, and deliver recovered plastics, cardboard, and other recyclable materials, we also represent companies that convert recovered plastics into fuels or raw materials for new manufactured goods using “advanced” or “chemical” recycling methods.

Without getting too far into the details of the Commonwealth’s legal landscape for such businesses, there is a fundamental legal dichotomy between manufacturing facilities on the one hand and facilities that recycle or dispose of material on the other hand. Manufacturing facilities are relatively easy to site and permit because they are not subject to the MassDEP’s solid waste regulations. Recycling facilities that produce materials for reuse or raw materials for manufacturing are subject to solid waste regulations but are relatively easy to site and permit. Solid waste facilities that handle waste materials that will ultimately be disposed of are much more heavily regulated and difficult to site and permit.

Ironically, despite the widely recognized plastics waste crisis, environmental and some mainstream groups have been attacking traditional recycling of plastics in an effort to stop the manufacture of new single-use plastics.  Similarly, critics of advanced or chemical recycling facilities have been pushing to categorize them as solid waste facilities or even prohibit them outright. In some states, legislation has been passed to prohibit or make burdensome the siting of advanced recycling, whereas in other states, laws have been passed to categorize these facilities as manufacturing, which sidesteps both recycling and solid waste facility siting and permitting.

It is my opinion that while the Massachusetts system could always be improved, it is working just fine. The MassDEP administers a number of grants and programs designed to enhance recycling, including plastics recycling. It has a comprehensive Solid Waste Master Plan and regulations carefully crafted to protect public health, safety, and the environment. Most recently, it has received a large budget increase that will allow for even more essential staff. For decades many of us here at Burns & Levinson have been successfully appearing before the MassDEP. On behalf of our recycling clientele, we are hopeful that the Commonwealth stays the course by neither over- nor under-regulating plastics recycling.

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