New Report Calls Out Chemical Recycling as a ‘False Solution’ to the Plastics Crisis

Yves here. Our past regular site writer, Jerri-Lynn Scofield, developed a “war on plastics” beat. She focused on restricting plastic use, in part based on her world travels, where she saw in many countries vastly less use of plastic packaging in commerce as well as daily living.

It’s pretty widely known that plastic recycling is a bust, but it appears that “chemical recycling” attempts to pretend otherwise. Admittedly, some health/environment oriented companies tout that the use recycled plastic (such as in egg cartons and shopping bags) but my understanding, as this article suggests, is that this is not a low energy process, plus most uses require the use of some first gen plastic in the mix.

I had thought a second issue was that clear and white plastic were easiest to recycle, and any colored plastic was more difficult. That may no longer be true. But if so, why aren’t there more efforts to ban the use of colored plastic, at least in packaging (imagine the heads that would explode in the toy industry if all colored plastic were made illegal)?

By Dana Drugmand, an environmental journalist focusing on climate change and climate accountability reporting. She writes regularly for DeSmog covering topics such as fossil fuel industry opposition to climate action, climate change lawsuits, greenwashing and false climate solutions, and clean transportation. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

Plastic bottles wait for recycling. Credit: Rawpixel

The plastics and petrochemical industries’ latest purported solution to the plastic pollution crisis – chemical or“advanced” recycling – is essentially a public relations and marketing strategy designed to distract from the urgent need to curb plastic production, a new report contends. The report, released today by Beyond Plastics and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), exposes the failures and perils of chemical recycling as an approach to manage plastic waste.

Only 11 chemical recycling facilities currently exist in the United States, and in total they are capable of processing less than 1.3 percent of all plastic waste generated annually, the report finds. The facilities do not operate at full capacity most of the time, however. Pervasive underperformance, hazardous working conditions, perpetuation of environmental racism, and financing challenges are among the many issues plaguing these operations, according to the report.

“I think the [plastics] industry is relying on confusing people, starting with what is it, and what do you call it,” Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA regional administrator, told DeSmog.

There is no legal definition of chemical recycling. The term generally describes industrial technologies that chemically process plastic waste, melting or boiling it down into gasses, chemicals, or fuels. The process is extremely energy intensive and inevitably generates toxic byproducts. While industry associations like the American Chemistry Counciland America’s Plastic Makers now refer to it as “advanced recycling,” Enck said it is neither advanced nor recycling. “What we’re finding is very little new plastic is actually created,” she said.

Instead, many of the technologies use methods like gasification and pyrolysis to convert plastic into fuel. Pyrolysis is the process of heating a certain substance without oxygen, in this case to chemically break down plastics into their component parts so they can be made into other chemical substances or into fuels. Such a conversion is not recycling, according to internationally accepted definitions, the report notes.

Chemical recycling itself is not new. “The industry has been at this for decades,” Enck said. Disney World, for example, built a pyrolysis facility in 1982 to help address its plastic waste problem. The facility closed shortly thereafter because it was too expensive and inefficient to operate, requiring twice as much energy as Disney had originally projected.

Map of the 11 chemical recycling plants in the U.S. Credit: Beyond Plastics and IPEN

In addition to its longstanding failures, chemical recycling contributes to toxic air pollution, hazardous waste buildup, and climate change, all while threatening communities experiencing environmental injustice, the report finds.

“The landscape of chemical recycling in the United States is littered with failure and pollution,” Beyond Plastics deputy director and report contributor Jennifer Congdon said in a press release. “Several of the U.S. facilities are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as large generators of hazardous waste, and the majority are located in communities of color, low-income communities, or both.”

The report calls for a nationwide moratorium on all new chemical recycling facilities. It also urges much stricter regulation and scrutiny of these operations, including prohibiting their siting in environmental justice communities and ending government incentives for these facilities at all levels, among other recommendations.

Under heavy lobbying pressure from the plastics and petrochemical industries, however, states are enacting laws to deregulate chemical recycling. Enck said 24 states have so far adopted policies promoting chemical recycling that classify it as manufacturing, which makes the operations eligible for even more generous subsidies while allowing them to be built under more lax environmental regulations.

At the international level, delegates are preparing to convene for the next round of negotiations for the drafting of the UN plastics treaty, to be held November 13 to 19 in Nairobi, Kenya. The plastics industry is “pushing hard” to have chemical recycling included in the treaty, Enck said, though so far it has failed to convince delegates to adopt the strategy.

Plastics Industry “Knew” Recycling Was a Lie

In the report’s forward, a former high-ranking official for the plastics industry recalls the internal conversations that prompted “aggressive advertising campaigns” to promote recycling. Lewis Freeman, who served as vice president of government affairs at the Society of the Plastics Industry (now called the Plastics Industry Association) from 1979 to 2001, reveals that industry executives insisted the lobby group “advertise its way out of plastic’s growing public relations problem” as public concerns grew around the material’s environmental impacts.

“Despite knowing that plastics recycling couldn’t realistically manage a significant amount of plastic waste, companies spent millions of dollars convincing the public otherwise,” Freeman writes. He emphasizes that plastic pollution “is a waste problem for which recycling is not a suitable response.”

The industry “knew plastic recycling was never going to work,” Enck told DeSmog. “They knew it was a lie.” Enck said she has noticed “a real uptick” in recent months in plastics industry advertising in major media outlets.

“It’s really more of a lobbying and marketing campaign,” she said, “than an actual solution to the plastic pollution problem.”

Chemical recycling is a “false solution” to the plastic pollution problem, the report argues, and it has striking similarities to carbon capture and storage (CCS) – technologies that aim to manage carbon pollution from emitting facilities. CCS critics say it is a false solution to the climate crisis, noting it has a track record of underperformance and failures, is inefficient, energy intensive and expensive, and threatens environmental justice communities. The fossil fuel industry is among the biggest backers of CCS, just as the plastics industry is the biggest promoter of chemical recycling.

“There are scary parallels between what the fossil fuel companies are saying about carbon capture and storage and what the plastics/fossil fuel/chemical companies are saying about chemical recycling,”  Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA regional administrator, told DeSmog. “They must all use the same PR firms, and the question is, will policymakers fall for it?”

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  1. JE

    So life as we live it in the US and greater “west” is the problem and we have entrenched industries and interests all around us that want to keep the gravy train on the tracks. Not to mention our own desires for the so called quality of life to which we have grown accustomed. Who is going to change that? Is better packaging, better cars, better houses going to solve it? I know that for myself I try to make the best choices I can for sustainability when I can but the options are limited in many areas. Both from a cost and availability perspective. Perhaps incremental improvements are coming and the needle is moving but after years of intense monitoring my household energy footprint I’ve given up and just try to live as best I can and not worry about it. The societal will isn’t there to listen to adult conversation on any topic and what will is there is bested by the soundbite, the easy answer, the division sown by “othering.” I hope we can correct our course but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Colin

    As an engineer who designs recycling equipment for the recycling industry, I feel pretty comfortable with the knowledge that I’m at least helping to alleviate the plastic waste problem. If plastic recycling is a bust, then I think it’s amazing that my employer, who’s been in the business for about 50 years, can continue to engineer and install multimillion dollar MRF facilities here in the US and all over the world.

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned by J. Schofield is that there are other solutions to the plastic waste problem such as converting plastic waste into solid building blocks using nothing but steam and pressure. Then the block is used as building material.

  3. Colin

    There is a company called BYFUSION who convert plastic waste into building material using nothing but steam and pressure.

    1. TimH

      These are not for building construction. Per their website: BYBLOCKS are ideal for…
      Retaining walls
      Sound walls
      Privacy fencing
      Terracing and landscaping
      Accent walls

      If you look at the surface, they are massive dirt traps which will difficult to clean without a water or air stream… which will delaminate the blocks.

      They really need to be sealed with a polymer coating, which increases the cost a lot.

  4. Dr. Nod

    I should disclose that I have co-authored a couple of cover articles in major chemical journals (Journal of the American Chemical Society and Angewandte Chemie) on chemical/biological plastic recycling/upcycling in the past year. Plastic recycling is complicated (sounds like a cop-out but it is true). The type of plastics in water bottles and milk jugs (polyethylene terepthalate and high density polyethylene recycling numbers 1 and 2) are recyclable by melting and remolding but the melting temperature increases each time one recycles. Pigments and plasticizers can be a problem, but recycling these works reasonable well. Other plastics are barely recycled. Chemical recycling (a very imprecise term) is not very effective at the moment so I would agree with much of the thesis of this piece. However, there are a lot of people working hard on developing effective, energy efficient chemical or chemical-biological methods for recycling plastics, so we should not damn chemical recycling for all eternity. That being said, I am very old and remember very well a time when there was almost no plastic usage (not an impression, I have numbers) and we could certain vastly reduce plastic usage with a net improvement to the quality of life.

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    As long as the current system of economics remains an important component in determining how material resources are used — and easily extracted, mined, or harvested resources remain, and their refinement remains relatively less costly than recycling — recycling will offer greater value as an advertising strategy than as a practical means for dealing with wastes, refuse, or resource recovery. As long as the current systems of economics and political power remain an important component in determining who suffers the negative consequences of the current systems of economics and political power the communities experiencing environmental injustice will continue to experience that injustice.

    I believe plastics offer a good example displaying most plainly many of the problems inherent in current recycling schemes. Ignore the degradation of refuse plastic compared with the same plastic material obtained from processing an otherwise less valuable component of a petroleum crack. I believe the costs in gathering and sorting refuse plastic to obtain suitable input materials for a recycling process — chemical or other — far exceed the costs in turning petroleum crack into ready to use uniform plastic pellets.

    Suppose the components of petroleum crack used for plastics production were NOT used to produce plastics. What would become of them? As far as I know they might prove of use in oil lamps since the whales will not be coming back in former numbers any day soon. Just for fun, ask a similar question about electric cars and what might be done with the gasoline component of petroleum crack. I am not optimistic that battery powered electric trucks, trains, or ships will replace diesel for powering diesel engines or diesel generators to run electric engines in trains or ships. I think that leaves tar and kerosene as the largest volume of products remaining in a petroleum crack. We can always use the tar to seal our driveways and roofs, make shingles, and coat our roads. Kerosene heaters hold back the chill when the power goes out and kerosene can give light to our camp lanterns on vacation … when we might have vacations. As long as we depend on diesel engines, and rely on diesel generators for electric power there will be a lot of other products in the petroleum crack that have to be used in some way or stored as wastes somehow and somewhere. Given our current systems of economics and political power I hesitate to speculate about that somehow and somewhere.

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