As consumers become increasingly aware of the health risks and environmental issues associated with a world drowning in plastics, the petrochemical industry is advocating another false solution to address the plastic crisis facing the planet: Advanced recycling or chemical recycling.
Chemical recycling uses incineration processes including pyrolysis, gasification and solvolysis to break down plastic waste. The industry claims this will make plastic production “circular” by using plastic to make more plastic and keeping hard-to-recycle plastic waste out of landfills. A 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Energy estimated the U.S. discarded 44 million metric tons of plastic, and 86 percent of this plastic ended up in landfills.
The public relations departments of the plastics industry and the American Chemical Council are working overtime to convince politicians and citizens that chemical recycling is the answer to the enormous problem of plastic wastes. However, like carbon capture and blue hydrogen, this process is just another way to greenwash an industry that is responsible for 400 million tons of plastic waste each year. From cradle to grave, the entire process of plastic production has a significant carbon footprint. Even the United Nations has declared plastic wastes as a serious threat to humanity and the planet.
By using the term recycling, the industry is misleading consumers and decision-makers. Recycling means “to return a material to a previous stage of a cyclic process.” If the waste plastic material was indeed turned back into a similar plastic, it would provide a benefit to the environment by reducing the need for fossil-fuel-based feedstock to create virgin plastic. But this is not the case with chemical recycling where the majority of plastic wastes are being converted and used as a fuel source.
The technology of chemical recycling can be grouped into two main categories: Heat-based and solvent-based. There are two primary methods that use heat and pressure to break down the long chain plastic polymers: Pyrolysis and gasification. Both apply high temperatures to the waste plastic in a low oxygen setting or an oxygen-depleted reactor. Solvent-based depolymerization is a bit more complicated as it relies on heat as well but also includes various steps and solvents to break bonds, to strip out impurities, or to retain in-tact polymers.
A study released in September shows that reuse and mechanical recycling of plastic packaging are better choices when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Emissions from mechanical recycling are lower than those from chemical recycling by a factor of nine.” The study also points out that reducing the amounts of unnecessary packaging also will help move the world toward a zero-emission economy.
Other factors to consider, aside from the fact that the majority of facilities are not truly recycling any plastic, are the large quantities of hazardous waste generated, the amounts of toxic air pollutants released and the fact that facilities are “disproportionately located in communities of low income or people of color, or both.”
Agilyx, located in Tigard, Oregon, is one of the few commercial-scale facilities in operation. It uses pyrolysis to turn polystyrene into the monomer styrene, which is used to make more polystyrene. Much of the styrene however is used as a fuel source. The plant released 500,000 pounds of hazardous waste in 2019. Styrene is made from benzene, a known carcinogen. PureCycle, located in Ohio, also is a large-scale hazardous waste producer with more than 2,200 pounds of hazardous waste generated per month.
Chemical recycling requires a considerable amount of energy and obtains this by burning fossil fuels, thus adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. “In 2019 alone, the global production and incineration of plastic accounted for more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere, approximately equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.”
Additionally, when plastic is burned, the carbon portion of the polymer is combusted, but other toxic additives used in plastic production remain in the residue. If the plastic is used for fuels or chemical feedstocks, the non-combustible materials will remain intact. These toxins can be carcinogenic or endocrine disruptors and include: Dioxins, furans, heavy metals, flame retardants, PAHs, VOCs, phthalates, bisphenol A, chlorine and fluorine. The “EPA provides little information about emissions and relies heavily on self-reporting by the industry.”
The American Chemistry Council has promoted chemical recycling and is “actively trying to influence state and local governments and decision-makers to approve new plastic expansion projects, remove regulatory obstacles, and award public money or tax breaks to pass some of the needed investment on to taxpayers.”
The American Chemistry Council and other trade associations support bills which would allocate money (HR 5115) for recycling infrastructure including chemical recycling as well as funding dollars for research (HR 7728) on the technology.
A 2020 Greenpeace report “Deception by the Numbers” looked at financial investments for 51 chemical recycling projects. They found since 2017, $506 million had been awarded through public funds such as bonds, loans, grants, tax credits and other incentives. Of that $506 million, “89 percent was spent on waste-to-fuel/plastic-to-fuel.” Taxpayers are not paying for plastic recycling but rather paying for fuels for the petrochemical industry.
One of the major sticking points when it comes to regulations is the classification of chemical recycling. It is being defined as a manufacturing process rather than a waste incineration process.
This means facilities are subject to less stringent air and water quality requirements. Currently, there are 20 signed state laws, including HB 166 in Ohio and SB 4084 in West Virginia, that redefine waste to exclude “advanced/chemical recycling.” One of the few states to kill an industry-backed bill was Rhode Island. A June 27 issue of Plastic News reported that two senior Democrats had “significant questions about the bill.” Environmental groups in the state argued that the state should focus on reducing single use plastics. The Conservation Law Foundation said “there was no evidence to support the claim that new plastics were being made, and instead materials were being burned creating climate-changing gases and air pollution.”
A final concern with these dangerous facilities is where they are located. In most cases, poor communities of color seem to be the sites for the majority of waste-to-energy plants. You will not see a chemical recycling facility in a rich suburb. Many lawmakers admit this is clearly a case of environmental injustice. They are writing and passing laws hoping to address the disproportionate amounts of hazardous facilities, like chemical recycling, located in poor communities, near schools, close to water sources and adjacent to parks and public lands. (Rhode Island HB 5923).
SOBE Thermal Energy Systems is proposing a “recycling facility for tires and plastics” in Youngstown. Basically, they will be using gasification to create a fuel that will be burned to create steam to heat some downtown buildings.
When the CEO of SOBE, Dave Ferro, was questioned about this facility his reply was, “his plant would be as clean or cleaner than natural gas.” Any peer reviewed analysis of the incineration of plastics/tires will point out the toxic air pollutants created in the process (dioxin and furans) as well as all the plastic additives that will not be fully destroyed. This facility will subject the community to a constant stream of toxins in their air, land and water. I urge anyone who thinks this is a good idea to do the research, read the scientific studies. Do not buy into industry claims that this is recycling. It is simply a dirty waste-to-energy project.
Pokladnik, a resident of Uhrichsville, holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, master’s and doctorates in environmental studies and is certified in hazardous materials regulations.