PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) — The plastics industry says there is a way to help solve the plastic waste crisis plaguing the world’s oceans, beaches and land — recycle it, chemically.
Chemical recycling typically uses heat or chemical solvents to break down plastics into liquid and gas to produce an oil-like mixture or base chemicals. Industry leaders say the mixture can be made into plastic pellets to make new products.
“What we’re trying to do is really create a circular economy for plastics because we think that’s the most viable option to keep plastic out of the environment,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade association for American chemical companies.
ExxonMobil, New Hope Energy, Nexus Circular, Eastman, Encina and other companies plan to build large plastics recycling plants. Seven smaller facilities across the United States are already recycling plastic into new plastic, according to the ACC. A handful of others are converting hard-to-recycle used plastics into alternative transportation fuels for aviation, marine and automobiles.
But environmental groups say advanced recycling is a distraction from real solutions like producing and using less plastic. They suspect that the idea of recyclable plastics will allow the sharp acceleration in plastic production to continue. And while the amount produced globally is increasing, plastic waste recycling rates are extremely low, especially in the United States.
Plastic packaging, multi-layer films, bags, polystyrene foam and other hard-to-recycle plastic products are piling up in landfills and the environment, or going to incinerators.
Judith Enck, founder and president of Beyond Plastics, says recycling plastics doesn’t work and never will. The chemical additives and dyes used to give plastic different properties mean there are thousands of types, she said. This is why they cannot be mixed and recycled conventionally and mechanically. There isn’t much of a market for recycled plastic either, as virgin plastic is cheap, she said.
So what’s more likely to happen than actual recycling, said Enck, a former regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is that industry will turn to burning plastics as waste or as fuel.
Lee Bell, policy adviser for the International Pollutant Removal Network, thinks chemical recycling is a public relations exercise by the petrochemical industry. The aim is to dissuade regulators from capping the production of plastics. Plastic manufacturing could become even more important to the fossil fuel industry as climate change puts pressure on their transportation fuels, Bell said.
The industry has made around 11 billion tonnes of plastic since 1950, half of it since 2006, according to industrial ecologist Roland Geyer. Global plastic production is expected to more than quadruple by 2050, according to the United Nations Environment Program and GRID-Arendal in Norway.
The International Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development says the share of plastic waste successfully recycled is expected to rise from 9% in 2019 to 17% in 2060 if no additional policies are adopted to limit plastic demand and improve recycling , but that would not start to keep up with the predicted growth in plastic waste. With more ambitious policies, the amount of recycled plastic waste could increase from 40% to 60%, according to the OECD.
Two groups working to reduce plastic pollution, Last Beach Clean Up and Beyond Plastics, estimated the U.S. plastic waste recycling rate in 2021 to be even lower – 5% to 6%, after China stopped accepting waste from other countries in 2018.
The US National Recycling Strategy states that no option, including chemical recycling, should be excluded. According to the industry, these new plants are considered manufacturing plants. They should be legally defined that way, not as waste management. About 20 states have passed laws in the past five years consistent with this wish. Opponents say it is a way to circumvent stricter environmental regulations that apply to waste management facilities.
The U.S. facilities that currently recycle plastic into new plastic are small — the largest is a 60-tonne-per-day plant in Akron, Ohio, Alterra Energy, according to the ACC.
Alterra Energy says it supports hard-to-recycle plastics, such as flexible pouches, multi-layer films and rigid automotive plastics – everything except plastic water bottles since these are mechanically recycled, or plastics marked with a “3” since they contain polyvinyl chloride or PVC.
“Our mission is to solve plastic pollution,” said company president Jeremy DeBenedictis. “It’s not just a slogan. We all really want to solve plastic pollution.
The Ohio facility typically takes 40 to 50 tons a day, heating and liquefying the plastic back to oil or liquid hydrocarbon, or about 10,000 gallons to 12,000 gallons a day. About 75% of what enters the plant can be liquefied this way. Another 15% is turned into synthetic natural gas to heat the process, while the rest — paper, metals, dyes, inks and dyes — exit the reactor as a byproduct, or charcoal, DeBenedictis said. Char is disposed of as non-hazardous waste, although in the future some hope to sell it to the asphalt industry.
The process doesn’t involve oxygen, so there’s no burning or incineration of the plastics, DeBenedictis said, and their product is trucked in as synthetic oil to petrochemical companies, basically the ” building blocks at the molecular level for new plastic production”.
The materials they absorb, which have not been able to be recycled so far, should not be sent to landfills, dumped in the ocean or incinerated, DeBenedictis said.
“That next level has to be new technology, what you call chemical recycling or advanced recycling. That’s the next frontier,” he said.
“Let’s not kid ourselves here. Now is the right time to do so,” added company CEO Fred Schmuck. “There is absolutely no way to achieve our climate goals without tackling plastic waste.”
DeBenedictis said he is licensing the technology to try to grow the industry because it’s “the best way to have the fastest impact on the world.” A Finnish oil and gas company, Neste, is currently working to commercialize Alterra’s technology in Europe.
The main chemical recycling technologies use pyrolysis, gasification or depolymerization. Neil Tangri, science and policy director of the Global Alliance for Alternatives to Incinerators, is skeptical. He says he’s heard that pyrolysis was going to change everything since the 1990s, but it didn’t happen. Instead, plastic production keeps climbing.
GAIA sees chemical recycling as a false solution that will facilitate greater production of virgin plastic — a high-energy process with high carbon emissions that releases dangerous air pollutants, Tangri said. Instead, GAIA wants plastic production to be drastically reduced and only recyclable plastics to be produced.
“Nobody needs more plastic,” Tangri said. “We keep trying to solve these production issues with recycling when we really need to change what we make and what we make. This is where the solution lies.
EQUITY PROBLEMS IN CITING PLANTS
In Rhode Island, state lawmakers this year considered a bill to exempt such facilities from solid waste licensing requirements. It was vigorously opposed by environmental activists and residents near the Port of Providence who feared it would lead to a new factory in their neighborhood. State environmental officials sided with them.
Monica Huertas, executive director of the People’s Ports Authority, helped lead the opposition. The neighborhood is already overloaded with industry, she says, so much so that she sometimes has asthma attacks after walking around.
Dwayne Keys said it’s unfair that he and his neighbors always have to be on guard for proposals like these, unlike residents of some of the state’s affluent white neighborhoods. The port area has enough environmental risks that residents do not benefit economically, he added. Keys talks about environmental racism.
“The assessment is that we are the path of least resistance,” he said. “Not that there is no resistance, but the least. We are a coalition of people who volunteer their time. We have no wealth or access to resources or legal means, unlike our white counterparts in higher income, higher net worth communities.
Baca, of the chemistry council, said the facilities operate to the highest standards, that the industry believes everyone deserves clean air and water, and he would call on all critics to one of the facilities so they can see it firsthand.
US plastic producers have said they will recycle or recover all plastic packaging used in the United States by 2040 and have already announced more than $7 billion in investments in mechanical and chemical recycling.
“I think we are on the cusp of a sustainability revolution where circularity will be the centerpiece,” Baca said. “And innovative technologies like advanced recycling will be what makes this possible.”
Kate O’Neill wrote the book on waste, titled “Waste”. A professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, she has thought a lot about whether chemical recycling should be part of the solution to the plastic crisis. She said she concluded she did, although she knows saying that would “piss off environmentalists”.
“With some of these big issues,” she said, “we can’t rule anything out.”
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