Environmental experts say there’s a strong possibility that a federal bill will be introduced in the U.S. that seeks to strengthen an industry known as “advanced recycling,” or “chemical recycling.”
While proponents of advanced recycling tout it as a solution to the ever-growing plastic pollution issue, critics say that it’s not recycling at all, but a highly polluting incineration process that converts plastic into fuel.
Experts say that current advanced recycling plants are able to operate with ease due to state laws that subject them to fewer regulations.
Critics say the passing of a federal bill into law would substantially increase the number of advanced recycling plants across the U.S., allowing them to evade many environmental regulations while disproportionately polluting the air in low-income communities and communities of color.
In April 2022, a Texas company unveiled a plan to transform a tiny Pennsylvania town into an industrial hub: it would invest $1.1 billion into building a manufacturing plant that will annually convert around 450,000 tons of plastic waste — an amount 40 times as heavy as the Eiffel Tower — into feedstock for new products, a process dubbed by the plastics industry as “advanced recycling,” though also known as “chemical recycling.”
In a press release, the company, Encina, says the facility will help the world transition toward a circular economy and achieve carbon neutrality. But critics say the company is simply burning plastic to make fuel and that these actions will endanger the environment and human health.
Encina has yet to open its new plant in Point Township, Pennsylvania, but there could be about eight other facilities currently operating across the U.S. that use so-called advanced recycling processes, according to a brief by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Environmental experts say the facilities operate under the guise of being recycling plants when they’re really producing hazardous toxic waste, some of which is converted into fuel. Moreover, they say these facilities are able to evade a number of environmental regulations due to 20 state laws that define advanced recycling as a manufacturing process, rather than as a more strictly regulated waste disposal process.
Now, environmental experts say they anticipate an even greater problem: the possibility of a federal bill being introduced that, if passed into law, would strengthen the chemical recycling industry across the U.S.
Daniel Rosenberg, director of federal toxics policy at the NRDC, said the plastics and chemical industries would see the approval of a federal bill as the “holy grail.”
“Essentially, federal legislation similar to what has been passed in many of the states would apply nationwide, and would remove federal health protections,” Rosenberg told Mongabay in an email.
While no bill has yet been introduced at a federal level, Rosenberg said that the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry association based in Washington, D.C., that represents plastic manufacturers, has been saying “that they are going to introduce a bill,” and representatives from ACC have been “talking to Congressional offices about it.”
In response to these reports, a coalition of more than 200 organizations, including the NRDC, recently submitted a letter to the U.S. Congress, urging officials to reject any bill that would enable the plastics and chemical industries to forge ahead with advanced recycling.
“The last thing Congress should be doing is weakening regulations for toxic technologies,” Sarah Doll, national director of the Safer States, an NGO that’s part of the coalition, said in a statement. “As a nation, we should be focusing on real solutions to the plastic crisis, like bending the curve down on the use of plastic and solutions like nontoxic reuse and refill systems.”
Activists say the very best way to curb the massive plastics pollution now escalating around the globe is to reduce plastics production, not to incinerate the waste, which can potentially cause air, ground, and water pollution.
What exactly is advanced recycling?
The world has a plastic problem. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that global society produces about 400 million metric tons of single-use plastic products and other plastic waste each year and that less than 10% is recycled. In the U.S., the recycling rate is even worse — one study suggests that only 5% is truly recycled.
Plastic pollution has gotten so bad that scientists have suggested that we have crossed a planetary boundary for plastics and other chemicals entering the environment — meaning that we have transgressed a limit beyond which our Earth may not be able to cope with the environmental stress that humans inflict. This boundary crossing could destabilize Earth’s natural operating systems, especially when the unrestrained release of chemicals interacts with other Earth systems and processes. Ultimately, human survival could be at risk.
So what do we do with all of this plastic waste, much of which is polluting our oceans, waterways, land, and even the atmosphere? The chemical and plastics industry says a solution lies in “advanced recycling.”
America’s Plastic Makers, an association of plastic producers and fossil fuel companies that claims to seek the end to plastic pollution, says that “advanced recycling” is a sustainable process that “creates new top-quality plastics out of used plastics,” including 90% of “hard-to-recycle plastics.” Chemical recycling is described as a process of breaking down solid plastic into liquid or gas form through gasification (the heating of waste in a low-oxygen environment) or pyrolysis (the heating of waste without oxygen) to “remake plastics or products for other industries.”
America’s Plastic Makers argues that advanced recycling facilities do not emit more air pollution than facilities that produce cars or food, and that the process is “key to meeting circularity goals while keeping plastics out of landfills and our environment.”
Environmental experts view things very differently. First of all, they dispute the idea that advanced recycling is recycling at all, at least not in the traditional sense of turning an old plastic product into a new one. Instead, they say it’s a highly polluting, energy-intensive process that incinerates plastic waste, and in most cases, turns it into fuel, such as diesel and aviation fuel.
According to a Greenpeace report published in 2020, less than half of 50 surveyed recycling projects that were approved by the ACC — some of which are currently operational and some of which are yet to open — would be considered “credible plastic recycling projects,” while most of the rest turned plastic waste into fuel.
“Very little, if any, plastic is being recycled at the ‘chemical recycling facilities in the U.S.,” Rosenberg said. “These are plastic-to-fuel operations, which is not recycling. The industry is selling a fantasy of recycling plastic, but they are primarily making dirty aviation fuel.”
‘Advanced recycling’ – Neither ‘advanced,’ nor ‘recycling’
Critics say that advanced recycling processes can produce toxic air pollutants that pose considerable health and safety risks for workers and local communities located near these facilities, many of which are low-income communities and communities of color.
Data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency indicated that a pyrolysis plant in Tigard, Oregon, produced nearly 500,000 pounds (227 metric tons) of hazardous waste in 2019, which was then burned to produce energy at plants located in six different U.S. communities. The main component of the waste was said to be benzene – a liquid hydrocarbon that has been identified as a carcinogen – as well as other dangerous elements like lead, cadmium, and chromium.
The plastic-to-fuel process also has a “Goliath-sized carbon footprint,” according to a report published by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) in 2020. This is because it requires fossil fuel energy to burn solid plastic to create fuel; the burning process itself also releases greenhouse gases and other chemicals, the report says.
New research published by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), a group of experts and organizations working to eliminate waste, found that greenhouse gas emissions from facilities that use pyrolysis were nine times higher than plants that conducted traditional, or mechanical, recycling.
Other parts of the plastic life cycle emit greenhouse gases — from the fracking of gases to plastic production and disposal. A report published last year by the NGO Beyond Plastic found that the plastics industry in the U.S. currently emits 232 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year, the equivalent of 116.5 gigawatts of coal plants — and that plastics will release more greenhouse gas emissions than coal plants in the U.S. by 2030.
Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the ACC, said he believes the many criticisms of advanced recycling “represent a total lack of understanding [and a] purposeful misrepresentation of both advanced recycling processes and basic economics.”
“Advanced recycling converts used plastics into saleable feedstocks to remake into new plastics,” Baca told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “If all the plastics were incinerated as falsely alleged, there would be no products to sell or viable business models for the multiple advanced recycling companies across the globe.”
Baca also disputed the characterization of advanced recycling as incineration, arguing that pyrolysis and gasification units operate without combustion either in low oxygen or without oxygen.
“ACC will continue to engage lawmakers on the basic facts about advanced recycling, and we encourage public officials and journalists to critically review the false claims and self-cited publications perpetuating old myths,” he said.
Fewer regulations, easier operations
Rosenberg said most state laws encourage chemical recycling in three main ways: by reclassifying plastic waste as “feedstock” to avoid environmental laws targeting waste disposal processes; changing the definition of “recycling” to include chemical recycling and its products; and making chemical recycling facilities eligible for state subsidies and other financial incentives.
“Generally speaking, having fewer regulatory requirements and receiving tax-payer subsidies is likely to make operations easier, which is why the chemical industry is pursuing them aggressively,” he said in his email. “It is also a way of laying the groundwork for eliminating protections at the federal level.”
Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator, told Mongabay that federal legislation would result in “more chemical recycling facilities created around the country,” and that many would likely end up in low-income communities and communities of color, which is where many current petrochemical facilities are located.
While it’s unclear how many new advanced recycling plants are planned for the U.S., Rosenberg said there are “new announcements almost weekly of plants that companies say they intend to build.”
Jessica Roff, a campaigner and policy advocate for GAIA, said a federal bill could also help advanced recycling facilities evade rules around incineration processes, which the EPA has been regulating for 30 years.
“If these plastic incinerators by another name can avoid being regulated as incinerators, they can escape Clean Air Act requirements altogether and their toxic pollution would be unfettered,” Roff told Mongabay in an email. “A federal law would also limit … community member rights, making it impossible for them to find out what toxic pollutants they’re being exposed to, let alone to stop them.”
In the letter sent to Congress by the coalition of groups, the authors say the concept of advanced recycling is a “dream come true” for chemical industry lobbyists.
“Having an eco-sounding way to make plastic waste vanish from sight helps the industry justify exponential growth in plastics production,” the authors write.
According to the OECD, plastic production could triple in the next 40 years — from about 460 million metric tons in 2019 to 1.23 billion metric tons in 2060 — in the absence of policies and action.
Environmental experts say the key to solving the plastic pollution issue is stopping plastic from being produced in the first place. Earlier this year, 175 countries agreed to adopt a U.N. framework to fight plastic pollution by addressing the entire life cycle of plastic, including its production. But nations have yet to agree upon the details of the treaty, which may not be finalized until the end of next year.
“The answer to the plastic waste crisis is not to make more plastic, and then burn it, but to make less plastic,” Rosenberg said. “It is a very simple equation that does not yield a result pleasing to, or profitable for, the chemical industry. They are proposing an alternative ‘solution’ using funny math that will make things worse and benefit nobody but the industry itself.”
Banner image: Sorting through plastic in a plastic recycling plant. Image by ILO/M. Fossat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).