Opinion | Energy & Environment

Chemical recycling: It's not what you think

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

From now until Nov. 8, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is soliciting public comments on the regulation of chemical recycling, also called advanced recycling. Specifically, the EPA seeks information on whether and how chemical recycling facilities should be regulated under the Clean Air Act (CAA). In accordance with the CAA, the EPA (along with individual states) regulates air emissions released from different solid waste facilities. These facilities are required to operate in ways that reduce the amount of lead, mercury and other hazardous air pollutants released when burning waste.  

It is unclear, however, how chemical recycling processes like pyrolysis and gasification fit within this law. Neither is defined in the Clean Air Act, and since they operate using a variety of wastes (e.g., municipal solid waste, biomass, medical waste, manure, wood and now plastic waste), their emissions differ. The different classifications of chemical recycling facilities could allow these operations to escape regulation, leading to more pollution.

Pyrolysis and gasification are energy-intensive processes that use high temperatures to convert waste to energy, fuel and other chemical commodities. And while pyrolysis and gasification are not new technologies, their application to plastic waste is. 

The petrochemical industry has begun to promote chemical recycling as a way to reduce plastic waste, but the environmental benefits of these processes are debated. The transformation of plastic waste to something like jet fuel still requires plastic, which comes from fossil fuels. This linear rather than circular pathway has led environment advocates to call chemical recycling a trojan horse, an industry shell game and a false solution. Others have called it "an expensive and complicated way to burn fossil fuels." 

The petrochemical industry has been part of the great recycling con for some time. A 2020 National Public Radio investigation revealed that in the 1980s and 1990s, petrochemical companies publicly promoted a different kind of recycling - mechanical recycling - despite knowing that this method of plastic waste management would never achieve widespread adoption. Today, 20 of these companies are responsible for 55 percent of the world's single-use plastic waste. This statistic, coupled with a 9 percent recycling rate for plastic, suggests that recycling is not a panacea.

Even so, petrochemical companies and businesses that rely on plastic to sell their products continue to promote plastic's recyclability. To crackdown on these dubious claims, California legislators enacted a new law last month focusing on misleading recycling labels. 

A similar tactic is playing out with chemical recycling. Recent investments in pyrolysis and gasification facilities by DowChevron and Exxon signal that petrochemical companies may continue to extract fossil fuels and produce single-use plastic in the name of recycling.  

States, too, are actively pursuing the development of chemical recycling. Currently, 14 states have enacted or proposed laws (most within the past two years) that remove pyrolysis and gasification from existing solid waste laws, and hence, from regulatory oversight. For example, a bill introduced in New Jersey this summer would "exempt plastic material ... processed at an advanced plastic processing facility from State laws regulating the disposal or recycling of solid waste."

Advocates argue reclassifying pyrolysis and gasification facilities as manufacturing instead of solid waste facilities will encourage the expansion of chemical recycling operations. Opponents point out that exemptions to these state laws will allow facilities to avoid current regulations targeting air pollution generated by solid waste facilities. Furthermore, the chemical recycling of plastic waste is not yet commercially available or economically viable

These concerns have caused some federal legislators to request a pause in its development. For example, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, reintroduced in March 2021, would suspend permitting on these facilities for three years to study the environmental impacts on the air, water and local communities. 

More importantly, the EPA's hierarchy of waste management, which identifies source reduction, not recycling, as the preferred method for managing waste, should guide its actions. As such, federal policies should prioritize reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place.

In the meantime, the federal government should regulate chemical recycling before more states act on their own. Federal regulations should provide clarity and consistency to an emerging technology that is rapidly developing across the country. Federal regulations should prevent the industry from misleading the public, regulators and investors on recycling or other environmental goals. And federal regulations should ensure that communities already overburdened with pollution are not harmed further.

There is no doubt the United States is experiencing a plastic waste crisis, and innovation should be encouraged. But proposals that will incentivize plastic production should be approached with skepticism. What the world needs now is not more plastic.

Sarah J. Morath is an associate professor at Wake Forest University School of Law who researches and writes about environmental and food law and policy. She is the author of "Our Plastic Problem and How to Solve It(Cambridge University Press 2022).  

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