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Chemical recycling in the US: a Trojan horse for plastic-to-fuel

Chemical Recycling in the United States: Plastic Fuel

Our parent organization, the Global Incinerator Alternatives Alliance (GAIA), recently released a timely report on the state of chemical recycling in the United States: "Talk about everything, don't recycle." The title is an appropriate summary of its findings. In fact, the assessment found that of the 37 plastic chemical recycling facilities planned since the beginning of 2000, only three are currently in operation, and none of them have successfully recycled plastics to produce new plastics.

Despite the lack of success in commercializing plastic recycling through chemical means, the industry has been touting chemical recycling as an alternative solution. In practice, this is often a mislabeling of chemical energy recovery processes (such as pyrolysis and gasification), which are designed to recover polymers or produce hydrocarbons that can be used as fuel; because the materials cannot be retained in the recycling cycle, Therefore, solutions should be found further downstream in the waste hierarchy. Chemical recycling is used as a Trojan horse to fight the global plastic crisis, decentralizing the implementation of real solutions such as prevention, reuse, and effective recycling methods that are more in line with global and national climate goals.

The report also concluded that the commercialization of plastic fuel technology and its potential impact on the environment, climate, human health and the existing machinery recycling market are still full of uncertainties, and there is no concrete evidence to support the industry’s feasibility claims. It seems clear that in 2019 alone, global plastic production and incineration generated more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, which is roughly equivalent to the emissions of 189 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

The report also pointed out that plastic fuel technologies, such as pyrolysis and gasification, are energy-intensive processes that impose a heavy toxic burden on communities and workers throughout the chemical recycling chain—from plastic waste disposal sites to final products. For example, in 2018, the Agilyx plant in Tigard, Oregon sent more than 49,000 tons of waste styrene (a highly toxic chemical) to be burned in cement kilns located in low-income communities across the country (mainly people of color).

Although the world is strictly controlling the carbon diet, US industry is now lobbying for the bill to strengthen the currently weak chemically recycled plastic products market. By creating a supply chain that transports more waste to plastic fuel facilities, it disrupts the less carbon-intensive traditional machinery recycling market. For example, legislation introduced by 15 states in the United States will no longer define post-consumer plastics as solid waste, but will reclassify “chemical” or “advanced recycling” facilities as chemical manufacturing facilities that manage products instead of solid waste management—this Resulting in providing better business opportunities for the industry, while strengthening business models that rely on waste generation.

However, the problem of plastic waste in the United States still exists. Of all plastic produced in the United States since 1950, 91% has never been recycled. However, there is growing momentum to prevent plastic pollution through government bans on plastic bags and other disposable items, and industry partners are increasingly calling for strategies to solve plastic production problems. In this case, GAIA identified opportunities for fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies to take action and take advantage of real solutions. Public pressure has forced large companies to commit to 100% recyclable packaging by 2030. These commitments must be combined with commitments to reduce the source, otherwise downstream measures will face the risk of maintaining the current excessive production and consumption of plastic packaging. As of July 2020, no FMCG company has promised to phase out single-use plastic packaging by shifting to a system of reusable and refillable delivery options.

Increasing investment in non-circular end-of-pipe solutions may derail waste prevention efforts. According to the Petrochemical Industry Association, the industry may spend up to $5 billion in plastic recycling in the United States, with about 80% of the announced investment in chemical recycling. GAIA expects that most of these funds will be used for plastic fuel projects. Given the instability of the fossil fuel market, these are risky investments. Plastic fuels are particularly sensitive to falling oil prices. For example, in the case of the Agilyx Tigard plant closure in 2016, when its products failed to compete with low oil prices, investors lost millions of dollars. The trend of fossil divestment and the era of decarbonization may not be conducive to such fuel recycling efforts.

The same trend can be seen in Europe, where investment flows and research funds are increasingly shifting from mechanical recycling to chemical recycling, and legislation has not yet caught up with the technology. Due to the lack of independent research on the environmental, climate and health effects of various chemical recycling methods at the industrial level, it is not clear to what extent chemical recycling can be used as a supplement to mechanical recycling. As the latest joint statement of zero waste Europe on chemical recycling sums it up: "Chemical recycling legislation should take preventive measures to ensure that preventive measures remain at the core of the EU's commitment to circular economy."

The full GAIA report can be found here.

Do you want to know more about the status of chemical recycling in Europe?

Learn about our latest joint statement with the Rethink Plastic Alliance, in particular ECOS, EEB and HCWH outline the key steps for effective chemical recycling legislation in the EU. Explore this topic in depth through our research: El Dorado of Chemical Recycling, status quo and policy challenges. Read Zoe Casey's blog to learn why chemical recycling cannot solve the plastic crisis.

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