R.I. Bills Address Solar Panel Recycling, Plastic Bag Ban
March 15, 2021
At the start of the 2021 session, it was expected that bills derailed last year by the coronavirus pandemic, such as a statewide plastic bag ban, would sail through both chambers. On Feb. 26, 2020, the bag ban bill passed the Senate with the backing from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and support from then-Gov. Gina Raimondo. But the pace is sluggish this year for the ban and other environmental legislation, and new Gov. Daniel McKee has yet to layout an environmental agenda.
At this point, the 2021 Act On Climate legislation is showing the most promise. The bill establishes enforceable climate emission reduction targets. The full Senate is expected pass its bill (S0078) March 16. The House will likely vote its version (H5445) out of committee March 18.
Here is a look at a few bills that had hearings last week:
Solar panel recycling
A newcomer to the crowded field of environmental legislation is a bill (H5525) requiring solar panel manufacturers to recycle their equipment when it stops producing energy. This concept of producer responsibility has been pushed by the environmental community for hard-to-dispose-of products such as mattresses, paint cans, and light bulbs.
The legislation is supported by the Product Stewardship Institute, a national producer responsibility advocacy group that has already advanced six takeback programs in Rhode Island.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, planning should be underway to address the estimated 10 million tons of solar panel waste that will be discarded in the United States by 2050.
The bill requires manufacturers to fund a program that collects and processes old panels and recovers rare earth elements and toxic materials like lead. Drop-off locations must be established in each of Rhode Island’s five counties to process at least 85 percent of old solar panels. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) would oversee the program and assess fines of up to $10,000 for solar panel sales that occur in the state without a stewardship program.
At a March 11 hearing, local solar installers warned that the the bill would hurt business. They argued that only the state of Washington has such a law. It passed in 2017 but has been delayed until 2023 because of implementation problems.
“It would basically be a ban on the sale of solar panels in Rhode Island,” said Eric Beecher, founder of solar panel installer Sol Power, based in Charlestown.
Beecher said his company already recycles panels that are damaged or no longer useful. Solar industry business groups such as the Solar Energy Industries Association have established nationwide standards for solar panel recycling.
Doug Sabetti, owner of Newport Solar, said most solar panels have a life of 30 years. It will be at least 15 years before a significant number of panels will go offline, he said.
“This bill will create havoc if just a few installers comply with this,” Sabetti said.
Jeremy McDiarmid of the Northeast Clean Energy Council said most installers already recycle old panels, while jobs would be lost if the state enacted this without its neighbors.
“Manufacturers would simply opt out of the Rhode Island market and create a significant set of challenges for the one thousand solar workers,” he said.
Henry Boeniger, lobbyist for Cranston-based wind and solar developer Green Development LLC, explained that most cities and towns in the state already require bonds for the proper disposal of retired solar equipment.
“With Rhode Island’s goal of seeking to obtain 100% of electricity from renewable energy by 2030, this bill would certainly be a deterrent to achieving that objective,” Boeniger wrote in submitted testimony.
Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton, sponsored the bill to address the problem of large ground-mounted solar projects displacing undeveloped land.
“When you see 80,000 trees taken down to put up a solar facility, and what guarantee do you have that at the end of the life of that facility there is going to be somebody there that’s going ensure that those panels be taken away and recycled,” he said. “There are no guarantees and no community has been able to get a single guarantee from a single installer of these large facilities.”
The House bill was co-sponsored by other moderate Democrats and Republicans: Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly; Julie Casimiro, D-North Kingstown; John Edwards, D-Portsmouth; Michael Chippendale, R-Coventry; and Blake Filippi, R-Charlestown.
Kennedy’s reasoning seems to suggest that he is more concerned about where solar arrays are built rather than the recycling of panels. Bills to establish statewide siting standards and encourage siting on buildings and developed land such as landfills and parking lots have died in committee.
A resolution (H5524) offered by Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, requests that the state create a map and spreadsheet of existing, proposed, and approved commercial solar arrays. The report would complement an analysis released by the state in 2020 showing preferred locations for building solar installations.
Like most bills heard for the first time, H5525 and H5524 were held for further study by the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Several committee members suggested that H5525 be revised before it advances or have the topic of solar panel recycling vetted through a study commission.
Plastic bag ban
Seventeen municipalities in Rhode Island, representing 55 percent of the population, have bans on plastic retail bags. But environmental advocates say a full statewide ban is needed to keep waterways clean and protect habitat, wildlife, and infrastructure.
House bill H5358 hasn’t changed from last year. It retains the stitched-handle provision that prevents retailers from offering thicker plastic bags. It has no fee on paper bags, and it includes a provision that prevents municipalities from adopting more stringent bag bans.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities suspended their bans because of paper bag shortages and unfounded fears pushed by the plastics lobby that paper bags and reusable bags spread the coronavirus.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, noted that only one of the two towns she represents, South Kingstown, authorized a bag ban, while Narragansett hasn’t.
“It’s kind of shocking,” she said. “You go to the CVS in South Kingstown, you get a paper bag or you bring your own bag. You go to the CVS in Narragansett — what can it be 3 miles away — and you get a plastic bag. So it’s time to stop this.”
As in previous years, the legislation is opposed by the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association and the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance (ARPBA), which represents plastic bag manufactures and recyclers.
Zachary Taylor, director of ARPBA, advocated for maintaining in-store plastic bag collection programs that downcycle the bags into railroad ties, synthetic lumber, asphalt, and new bags. He said reusable bags should be defined based on durability.
The statewide bag ban is supported by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Clean Ocean Access, Clean Water Action, The Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Law Foundation, Save The Bay, and DEM.
The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns opposes the provision that preempts municipalities from passing more stringent bag ban rules.
“We believe that local governments should be able to respond to the evolving needs of their communities and pass additional ordinances if they deem them necessary, particularly with regard to definitions and enforcement,” according to unsigned letter from the municipal advocacy group.
The Rhode Island Food Dealers Association and the Rhode Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation asked that retailers be required to assess a fee on paper bags to increase the use of reusable bags.
“The purpose of these fees is not to collect fees from shoppers in perpetuity. It is to properly encourage reusable bag use, which data proves requires fees,” according to a letter from Stan Brajer and Melissa Gates of the Surfrider Foundation.
The American Forest & Paper Association objected to the mandate that paper bags contain at least 40 percent post-consumer content because it raises manufacturing costs.
The Senate version of the bill (S0037) was heard by the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee on Feb. 24. Both were first hearings and held for further study.