America May Finally Restrict Plastics Industry’s Preferred ‘Recycling’ Method

This story was originally published by Grinding and appears here as part of the Climate Table collaboration.

One of the plastic and fossil fuel industry’s favorite “solutions” to the plastic pollution crisis may finally be coming under increased scrutiny from the federal government.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, formally announced it was considering stricter regulations for pyrolysis and gasification, controversial processes that are associated with “chemical recycling.” Industry advocates have called these processes key steps toward building a circular economy, one that minimizes waste, but environmental groups have called them an “industry shell game” aimed at keeping plastics in one go. use in production.

The problem, according to Denise Patel, regional coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA, is that most of what the industry calls “chemical recycling” does not recycle at all. Rather than converting used plastic into new plastic products, chemical recycling generally involves melting plastic into oil and gas to burn it; the process is sometimes referred to as “fuel plastic”. Not just chemical recycling not contributing to a circular economyPatel said, but it also releases greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change and dangerous chemicals that harm front-line communities.

Bales of crushed PET beverage bottles at a recycling facility in Frauenfeld, Switzerland. Photo by JoachimKohler-HB / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“This technology has not been sufficiently regulated by the EPA,” Patel said, adding that urgent oversight is needed to protect public health and the environment.

Currently, EPA does not have a consistent definition for chemical recycling or its constituent processes, much less a comprehensive framework to regulate it at the national level. EPA’s Clean Air Act guidelines for solid waste incineration set standards for some types of pyrolysis, a process that applies high temperatures to waste under deoxygenated conditions to produce oil, gas, and coal, but not others.

For example, the pyrolysis of municipal waste must meet pollution standards, unless it is carried out in a “plastics / rubber recycling unit” under certain circumstances. And for hospital and medical waste, the Clean Air Act says that pyrolysis doesn’t count as waste incineration at all.

Additionally, “the EPA has hesitated,” said Jim Pew, an attorney for the nonprofit Earthjustice, by failing to enforce existing emission standards for all chemical recycling facilities, in part by issuing exemption letters that allow facility managers to break free from the regulatory hook.

Advocates want the EPA to simplify this maze by categorically regulating chemical recycling as “solid waste incineration.” Such a measure would help EPA monitor and limit the release of hazardous substances from chemical recycling facilities: toxins such as benzene, bisphenol A, and lead, which are associated with higher rates of leukemia, lung problems, and neurological damage, respectively.

“It’s pretty simple,” Pew said. “If you want to burn municipal waste, adhere to the Clean Air Act standards for municipal waste incinerators. If you want to burn industrial waste, comply with the Clean Air Act standards for industrial waste. ”

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency formally announced that it was considering stricter regulations for pyrolysis and gasification, controversial processes that are associated with #ChemicalRecycling. # Plastics # Pyrolysis # Gasification

Industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council, or ACC, whose members include ExxonMobil, Dow and DuPont, have opposed the EPA’s proposal for a new regulation. According to the group, chemical recycling is already well regulated by federal, state and local governments; classifying it as solid waste incineration would create “burdensome and inappropriate“Permitting requirements,” “severely hampering” states’ ability to expand chemical recycling facilities.

Buckhorn Mesa Landfill. Ninety-one percent of the plastic ever produced has not been recycled. Photo by Alan Levine / (CC BY 2.0)

That’s an unhappy scenario for the ACC, which has spent the past few years aggressively lobbying for the passage of chemical recycling bills across the state. Since 2017 at least 14 states I have approved politics to ease regulations about chemical recycling facilities, and six of those states passed bills and resolutions last year alone. The new EPA regulation would nullify many of those bills, forcing states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Louisiana to regulate the recycling of chemicals as waste incineration.

The industry’s argument for chemical recycling is based on the insistence that it primarily converts post-consumer plastics into like-new plastic products. However, groups like GAIA have repeatedly shown that successful chemical recycling from plastic to plastic is a rarity. According to a 2020 Greenpeace analysis which analyzed 52 chemical recycling projects promoted by the ACC, less than half could reasonably be considered plastic recycling projects, and none showed promise of becoming commercially viable. Those that rated plastic-to-plastic recycling projects could only process 0.2 percent of the U.S. plastic waste generated in 2017, according to the report, which calls chemical recycling a “bait-and-go public relations tactic. change “designed to create the illusion of progress.

“They are trying to label it recycling, which is deeply offensive,” Pew said. “Saying it’s good for the environment in a way, they’re making a lot of plastic and then burning it.”

Patel noted that the new EPA regulatory action will not prevent the ACC or its member companies from using the term “chemical recycling.” But if you force them to meet clearer air quality standards under the Clean Air Act, it could impose greater regulatory hurdles on companies hoping to build these facilities in the first place. Critically, he said, it will draw attention to industry-backed state-level bills to expand chemical recycling facilities to local communities.

Recycling in Baltimore. Photo by Kristian Bjornard / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Advocates also have their eyes on federal legislation such as the Free yourself from the Plastic Pollution Law, which, among other things, would impose a three-year moratorium on new chemical recycling and plastic production facilities. It was introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon in March and has been stuck on the Finance Committee ever since.

For the most part, experts agree that the underlying solution to the plastic pollution crisis is much simpler than increasing chemical or even traditional recycling. A small amount of plastic may always be needed, said Raoul Meys, a research associate focusing on chemical processes at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, and finding ways to deal with that waste responsibly will be critical. But it’s just as vital to stop producing so much unnecessary plastic.

“Reducing the demand for plastics in general,” he said, “that’s definitely the way to go.”

Editor’s note: Earthjustice and Greenpeace are advertisers for Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

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