Resource Use

US analysis urges regulation for chemical recycling

A new US analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has found that the majority of chemical facilities studied are not recycling any plastic, but are instead creating fuels and releasing hazardous pollutants into communities and the environment.

Plastic bottlesReviewing eight facilities in the US, the study found that the majority of facilities do not recycle any plastic, the facilities generate a large amount of hazardous waste, they release hazardous pollutants, and they are often situated nearby or within communities that are disproportionately low income, people of colour, or both – resulting in ‘significant environmental justice concerns’.

What is chemical recycling?

Chemical recycling, also known as advanced recycling or molecular recycling, uses chemical, thermochemical, and combustion processes to convert a proportion of the treated waste into chemical building blocks. This can be recycled into new material – in the case of plastics, material that can be used for food-grade applications – or fuel.

Agilyx – the US ‘gold standard’ for chemical recycling

NRDC’s report finds that Agilyx, an Oregon-based processing plant labelled as the ‘gold standard of chemical recycling’, has sent a significant amount of material for incineration and generated a large amount of hazardous waste.

The plant takes waste polystyrene, converts it into styrene, which can then be used to make recycled polystyrene. However, NRDC’s study reveals that between 2018 and 2020, more than 150 tonnes of styrene were sent for incineration.

In 2019, Agilyx generated 226 tonnes of hazardous waste, of which almost 220 tonnes was sent for inceration. The hazardous waste produced by the plant, NRDC states, contains a significant amount of carcogenics, and/or neurotoxicants. According to data from the US Environmental Protection Agency, Agilyx was out of compliance with relevant Hazardous Air Pollution (HAP) or hazardous waste regulations during 8 of the last 12 financial quarters.

Policy recommendations

NRDC’s report recommends that US states ensure ‘comprehensive regulatory safeguards’, urging that chemical recycling facilities should not be exempt from solid waste permitting and regulations. Several US states have passed legislation to exempt facilities from such regulations, making them subject to weaker regulations on reporting air and water pollution. NRDC states that as chemical recycling facilities handle plastic waste, they should be treated and regulated as solid waste facilities.

The study also urges policymakers to maintain robust recycling definitions and standards that continue to exclude plastic-to-fuel processes. Producing fuel from plastic waste, NRDC notes, is not considered as recycling by ISO standards, the EU Environmental Commission, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and other groups.

The process also requires continued plastic inputs to create fuels that produce harmful air pollution and greenhouse gases when burned, which renders the process, according to NRDC, as ‘incompatible with circular economy and zero-carbon goals’. In the US, previous analyses have found that plastic-to-chemical processes are ‘barely present’ on a commercial scale, with plastic-to-fuel processes more common.

NRDC calls on US governments not to support federal loan guarantees for chemical recycling facilities, instead ‘investing taxpayer dollars in real solutions that reduce plastic production and waste’.

Alternatives suggested by the report include eliminating problem and unnecessary plastics, such as single-use plastics, innovating and scaling reuse and refill models, creating nontoxic materials to replace fossil fuel-derived plastics, and scaling up proven mechanical recycling or composting solutions.

‘The toxic trail’

Veena Singla, Senior Scientist and Author of the issue brief, NRDC, said: “Not only are ‘chemical recycling’ facilities failing at safely and effectively recycling plastic waste;  they’re releasing harmful pollutants into vulnerable communities and the environment. And the toxic trail doesn’t end there – further pollution and health harm comes from burning the dirty fuels created in the process.”

Daniel Rosenberg, Director, Federal Toxics Policy, NRDC, added: “‘Chemical recycling’ is just a greenwashing term for burning plastic and not a solution to our plastic waste problem  – no matter how the chemical industry tries to spin it.

“The Biden administration and Congress should reject plastic makers’ efforts to classify turning plastic into fuel as a legitimate form of recycling.”

A source of debate

In a report published in February, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) raised similar concerns over chemical recycling processes, urging that, if applied, techniques must be in line with circular economy principles.

WWF’s report asserts that reduction and reuse strategies should be prioritised over new chemical recycling processes, which should instead be applied to complement existing waste management systems. The charity emphasised the need to prevent competition between mechanical and chemical recycling facilities for feedstocks, stating that plastic waste streams should be matched with ‘the most environmentally efficient technology available.’

Advocates of chemical recycling technologies highlight their potential to ‘fill the gap’ in current recycling by offering an alternative where materials cannot be recycled via traditional methods, recycling material back to virgin-like quality. However, chemical recycling has attracted criticism over a ‘lack of transparency’ in available evidence of environmental performance.

Some European organisations, such as PlasticsEurope, are amongst the supporters of such technologies, with the trade association stating that scaling-up operations would be ‘essential’ in achieving EU targets on recycled content for plastic packaging. Zero Waste Europe recently highlighted the potential of chemical recycling technologies for improving PET circularity, although the group noted that such techniques must reach ‘full maturity’ with impacts fully assessed before implementation.

Recent months have seen interest in chemical recycling growing, with Infinity Recycling’s ‘Circular Plastics Fund’, which will invest in companies scaling up such technologies, receiving strong backing at its first capital close.

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