Chemical recycling bills gain traction, spark opposition in states

States facing a growing volume of plastic are turning to a recycling method that uses heat and chemicals to break down materials, even though critics say the process could do more harm to the environment than good.

Less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled in the United States each year, and the other 90% ends up in landfills, incinerators or the environment, leaving lawmakers and industries searching for solutions to combat the crisis. plastic pollution.

Over the past five years, twenty states have passed chemicals legislation or advanced recycling legislation, which relieves companies of burdensome regulations by treating recycling technology as a manufacturing operation rather than waste disposal. solid.

Advanced recycling advocates say the process is a step towards a circular economy, a system that reuses existing products to minimize the amount of end-of-life waste. The process is considered to be the best route available to divert waste from landfills.

“Less plastic in landfills is a good thing, and I commend the legislature for supporting this common-sense environmental initiative,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said in June after state lawmakers State have adopted an advanced recycling measure (SB 367).

But environmentalists question the energy use and toxic emissions involved in the process and argue that recycling alone will not solve the 242 million metric tons of plastic waste generated worldwide each year.

“The real solution we need to consider is to make less plastic,” said Veena Singla, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need to make less of these unnecessary and hard-to-recycle plastics, like single-use plastics, and switch to materials that are truly recyclable.”

Find solutions

State legislation exempts chemical recycling facilities from solid waste management regulations. A facility designated as a manufacturer receives less regulation and more economic benefits, such as government financial incentives.

Chemical recycling includes a suite of technologies that use non-mechanical processes to create new plastic products or fuels. Most of the processes are done using pyrolysis or gasification, two operations that use high temperatures to thermally or steam degrade the plastic.

“You have to use a lot of heat and energy to drive these processes,” said Lee Bell, policy adviser with the International Pollutant Removal Network. “They have a very large carbon footprint, and at the end of the day you have a huge stream of hazardous waste and a very small amount of useful products.”

According to IPEN, a coalition of groups advocating for chemical and waste policy changes, many plastics contain chemical additives such as POPs (persistent organic pollutants), UV stabilizers and plasticizers, which can lead to a hazardous waste stream if incinerated using the advanced recycling process. .

Advanced recycling also contributes to climate change, according to Beyond Plastics. The militant group found that the national plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

But proponents of the process tout the benefits of reusing as opposed to destroying the plastic.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association for chemical companies, said it supports manufacturing regulations because “facilities receive plastic raw materials as feedstock and process them into a product of greatest value in processes that do not involve incineration”.

“We think there are real opportunities for the federal government, for Congress, to take some of the work that’s been done and make sure that the whole of the United States has the proper legal and regulatory framework to these technologies,” said Craig Cookson of the American Chemistry Council. Senior Director of Plastics Sustainability.

Texas, home to refineries, chemical plants and an advanced recycling facility, was one of the first to pass advanced recycling legislation.

ExxonMobil Corp. The Baytown Chemical Recycling Plant has processed nearly 7 million pounds of plastic waste through pyrolysis since 2021.

A large-scale facility is expected to come into operation by the end of the year, with a capacity to recycle 30,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year. ExxonMobil also plans to increase capacity to 500,000 metric tons, or about 1 billion pounds, by the end of 2026, at multiple sites around the world.

Julie King, ExxonMobil’s head of media operations, said ExxonMobil shares concerns about plastic waste in the environment and is “taking action by helping to develop materials that are easier for society to recycle.”

The company still plans to expand its activities and be a model for other cities.

“We are working with the government, waste management companies and petrochemical manufacturers to expand access to recycling programs in the city of Houston, helping to create a recycling center that could serve as a model for other cities,” King said.

Target pollutants

The amount of plastic waste recycled at facilities does not take into account the amount of energy and emissions released in the process, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC studied state-level permits on select chemical recycling facilities across the country and found released air pollutants associated with the plants, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and dioxins. Many toxic chemicals are linked to cancer, nervous system damage, and negative reproductive and developmental effects.

“Advanced recycling sounds like a good thing, but what we found is that advanced recycling is really advanced pollution,” said NRDC’s Singla.

These chemicals were brought to the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency in July through a letter from more than 30 lawmakers expressing concerns about chemical recycling. The statement came as the agency plans to remove Clean Air Act protections from chemical recycling processes with the development of rules to consider whether pyrolysis and gasification should continue to be regulated as fuel combustion units. municipal waste.

Different approaches

Critics of chemical recycling say plastic waste solutions can start by reducing single-use plastics in the first place and not investing in chemical recycling technology.

California has taken steps to achieve this, passing the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act in June. The legislation requires producers in the state to reduce single-use plastic packaging by at least 25%, both in weight and height, by 2032. It also outlines a definition of state recycling. consisting of “keeping materials in the circular economy, and excluding incineration or other plastic-to-fuel technologies”, i.e. pyrolysis and gasification.

Still, proponents of the process in the states view chemical recycling as a realistic option for making progress in reducing virgin plastic.

Rhode Island could be the next state to see advanced recycling in future legislation. State lawmakers have faced a split over H8089 and S 2788, two advanced recycling bills, in June. The Senate passed S 2788, but the House said it would not consider the legislation this year.

State Sen. Frank Lombardo (D), who introduced S 2788, told a hearing in June that advanced recycling puts the country in the future of plastics recycling and is an “economic game changer.” and environmental”. The most important process, he said, is diverting plastic from landfills.

“We are faced with an option and the technology that we have today. Not in 10 years, not in 20 years, today,” Lombardo said. “What are our options? I believe it is in the interest and the best solution for our environment to recycle our plastics, given the options available to us. »

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