- A new report by NGOs International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and Beyond Plastics scrutinizes the chemical recycling industry that is on the rise in the U.S. and other parts of the world, including several European countries.
- Chemical recycling, also known as advanced recycling, is an umbrella term for industrial processes designed to use plastic waste as a feedstock to create fuel and new plastic products.
- While plastic producers and fossil fuel companies argue that chemical recycling presents a solution to the world’s plastic problem, environmentalists say chemical recycling is an unproven process that exacerbates the pollution problems it’s supposed to solve.
- In mid-November, negotiators met in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss the global plastics treaty. Chemical recycling was not formally discussed, but critics are concerned that it may be a part of future treaty negotiations.
In today’s industrialized world, avoiding plastic is virtually impossible. Every trip to the grocery store likely means coming home with food and household items packaged in plastic bottles, tubs and packaging. Order something online, and your product may arrive shrink-wrapped in plastic. Not only that, but plastic is often part or all of the product itself, be it kids’ toys, holiday decorations or one of our ubiquitous electronic devices.
So, how does one responsibly dispose of all this plastic?
The answer to that simple question is frustratingly complex. Many plastic products are marked with seemingly helpful recycling symbols, leading consumers to believe that most, if not all, plastic can be recycled. But that’s not the case.
Traditional recycling — the process of breaking down, melting and remolding plastic to form new products — is expensive, time-consuming and limited to certain plastic types. In the U.S., for example, only types 1 and 2 are easily recyclable, while 3 through 7 aren’t. Recycling rates are also historically low; in the U.S., it’s estimated that only 5-6% of plastic is recycled.
There’s another way to deal with plastic waste, according to the world’s big petrochemical companies: It’s called “chemical recycling,” or “advanced recycling,” an industrial process that the industry claims could recycle more types of plastics and help humanity transition to a circular economy.
However, according to a recent report released by Swedish nonprofit International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and U.S.-based NGO Beyond Plastics, most chemical recycling claims have yet to be proven, while existing chemical recycling facilities are exacerbating the pollution problem they’re supposedly trying to solve.
All this is happening against the backdrop of ongoing negotiations for a binding international plastics treaty that would reduce plastic pollution across its entire lifecycle. This type of treaty is also a regulatory process that fossil fuel and petrochemical companies and oil-producing states are resisting.
Chemical recycling: Recycling solution or greenwashing?
The IPEN and Beyond Plastics report suggests that chemical recycling is not really recycling at all. Instead, it’s an “umbrella term for a range of technologies that use heat or chemicals (or both) to break down the polymer chains in plastic waste to create ‘output.’”
Two main chemical recycling processes are in use today: pyrolysis, which heats waste without oxygen at very high temperatures; and gasification, the heating of waste in a low-oxygen environment. In most cases, the output is fuel, although chemical recycling can also generate feedstock for new plastic products, according to the petrochemical industry.
However, the report’s authors write that most chemical recycling facilities in operation today produce very little usable plastic feedstock despite creating no shortage of hazardous waste that damages the environment and threatens human health and safety.
“We’re seeing this technology hyped [by the plastics industry] as a solution to the plastic crisis, and it’s no such thing,” Lee Bell, the report’s lead author and IPEN’s policy advisor for persistent organic pollutants (POPs), told Mongabay in an interview. “It won’t deal with very much of the plastic waste that has been generated at all. So my concern is we’re being misled into … a false solution, and that there are many regulators and decision-makers and policymakers who are confused about this.”
A world brimming with plastic
The world is desperately in need of effective plastic solutions. About 430 million metric tons of plastic are produced per year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. That’s 75 times as heavy as the Great Pyramid of Gîza. Most of this plastic is used only briefly and then discarded, often improperly. An estimated 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers every day.
The problem is set to get far worse. If the plastics industry is permitted to continue growing without significant regulation, plastic production may nearly triple in the next 40 years, from about 460 million metric tons in 2019 to 1.23 billion metric tons by 2060.
The planet has already become so inundated with pollution from plastics and other synthetic chemicals that scientists say we’ve breached a critical “boundary.” This assertion is based on the planetary boundaries theory, which argues that Earth has nine key operating systems that enable life to thrive. However, each of these systems has a boundary threshold — or thresholds — that, if crossed, can destabilize Earth’s “safe operating space.” Plastic pollution is considered part of the “novel entities” boundary, and scientists say that this one, along with five other boundaries, including climate change and biosphere integrity, has been crossed.
Plastic producers and fossil fuel companies argue that chemical recycling presents a solution to the world’s plastic problem since it is intended to process plastics that can’t traditionally be recycled, keeping them out of the environment.
The report’s authors counter that chemical recycling is a “risky” business. According to research they reference, chemical recycling processes create large amounts of toxic waste and toxic emissions that can cause significant human health problems, while the facilities themselves have been prone to fires and explosions. Additionally, they say the greenhouse gas emissions from chemical recycling processes contributes to the acceleration of climate change.
The authors write that these processes, far from offering a solution, can “create as much as 100 times more damaging environmental and climate impacts than virgin plastic production,” which seriously calls into question the efficiency and environmental benefit of chemical recycling.
Ross Eisenberg, the president of America’s Plastic Makers, an arm of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a plastic industry association based in Washington, D.C., takes a different view. He argues that chemical recycling activities are strictly monitored and provide a way to “build a more sustainable and lower carbon future.”
“It is unfortunate that organizations like Beyond Plastics and IPEN, that have never visited a chemical recycling facility, perpetuate misleading allegations about technologies that are helping reduce plastic waste and minimize environmental impacts,” Eisenberg told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “However, it’s not surprising that a group that publicly disavows all plastic recycling would construct its own set of ‘findings’ to spread false information on chemical recycling technologies.”
Eisenberg also referenced a study conducted by the Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. government-funded research and development center in Illinois, that found that chemical recycling engaged in pyrolysis oil production generated an 18% to 23% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and also decreased fossil energy use, water use and solid waste.
However, as Lee explained in a subsequent email, this particular study relies on industry data and doesn’t “address or characterize the toxicity of solid waste, atmospheric emissions or other hazardous releases from the pyrolysis process,” which is a key criticism of chemical recycling in the IPEN and Beyond Plastics report. He said the Argonne study also doesn’t note that pyrolysis oil is usually loaded with contaminants, making it “unsuitable” for plastic production and refineries, and that it requires dilution with virgin petrochemicals, which makes the pyrolysis process “neither sustainable [nor] circular.”
“The Argonne paper does nothing to rebut our position that chemical recycling will, at best, deliver only a marginal contribution to plastic recycling (and plastic pollution) and any recycling benefits will likely be outweighed by the negative impacts of hazardous emissions, wastes and contaminated product from chemical recycling,” Lee said.
A poor record of success?
While investors have already spent billions of dollars to develop chemical recycling, the industry is not yet fully fledged. The ACC has advocated for the building of 150 chemical recycling plants across the U.S., but at present, there are only 11 constructed facilities in the country. Among them, four operate at a pilot or demonstration scale, and four others are partially operational.
IPEN and Beyond Plastics analyzed company records, news sources and other information to provide details about these U.S. facilities in their report. At least seven of the facilities were found not to be operating at capacity or delivering what they had promised, with aims and goals still unmet and unproven. For instance, the report notes that a Brightmark Energy facility in Ashley, Indiana, predicted in June 2020 that it would “reach a yearly plastic waste recycling capacity of 100,000 tons by early 2021,” and the operation received $4 million in U.S. federal subsidies to help make this happen. However, the report notes that, to date, the plant has only processed about 2,000 tons of plastic waste, while it has been impacted by fires, oil spills and worker health and safety complaints.
For the remaining four facilities, there is a paucity of publicly available information about their capacities and output.
A proposed plant highlighted in the report has raised eyebrows for its potential threat to human health. Chevron intends to build a chemical recycling facility to turn waste plastic via pyrolysis into oil that can be refined into jet fuel. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the project had a public risk factor of 1 in 4 — a level 250,000 times greater than what is typically permitted. “This means that 25% of the local population would likely develop cancer in their lifetime as a result of exposure to the facility’s emissions,” the report’s authors write. Other potential plastics-to-fuel products connected to this proposed plant had even greater risks associated with them.
Chemical recycling plants aren’t only popping up in the United States. There are already plants in the U.K. and several other countries in Europe, including Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain and Poland. But those facilities come with a difference, said Lauriane Veillard, the policy officer on chemical recycling and plastic-to-fuels at Zero Waste Europe, a Belgian NGO. While U.S. plants can claim to be “recycling” facilities, that isn’t the case for those that convert waste plastic to fuel in the U.K. and Europe.
“In Europe, we still have safeguards to be sure that this production is not considered as recycling,” Veillard told Mongabay in an interview. However, she adds that the concerns regarding air pollution and contamination from these facilities are essentially the same for chemical recycling plants on both continents.
“We see that chemical recycling is the solution to end the plastic waste crisis,” Veillard said. However, it’s important to consider humanity’s collective consumption patterns, she added. “A lot is put into recycling and improving it when solutions such as reuse, for example, that are directly tackling the issue of plastic waste, are completely [outside] of the discussion.”
Chemical recycling: Will it rise or fall?
Bell said he believes one reason chemical recycling has been able to progress without strong opposition and close scrutiny is because companies are not releasing adequate data, especially in relation to their toxic emissions and hazardous waste streams.
“There is insufficient data being made available from the industry to determine its impacts,” Bell said. “What there is raises some red flags. But there’s nowhere near enough data being made available about its impact, or indeed, even its yield — that is, how much useful material it develops based on the amount of [plastic waste] input.”
This lack of data and transparency can pose a problem for environmental regulators, policymakers and even investors who are enabling the rise of this industry, he said. At the same time, Bell believes policymakers are now becoming more aware of the risks associated with chemical recycling. He noted, for example, that government regulators who manage the Basel Convention on hazardous waste, which came into force in 1992, “recently rejected chemical recycling as an environmentally sound management technique to include in global plastic waste management guidelines.”
“It was felt that chemical recycling is unproven,” Lee said. The petrochemical industry “could not demonstrate that it’s environmentally sound as a technique for managing plastic waste. And it was not agreed to include it in the global plastic waste treatment guidelines.”
It remains to be seen whether chemical recycling will be included in the global plastics treaty, which is still under negotiation. Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, three states highly invested in the petrochemical industry, worked to stall progress on the treaty at the most recent set of meetings in Nairobi, Kenya, which concluded Nov. 19. Additionally, more than 140 lobbyists from the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries attended the meeting.
Bjorn Beeler, the general manager and international coordinator for IPEN, who attended the recent sessions in Nairobi, said chemical recycling was not formally discussed and remains on the periphery. At the same time, however, “Everything is on the table with regards to the treaty,” he said.
Banner image caption: A waste processing management facility and research center in Canada. Image by David Dodge/Green Energy Futures via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).