A Fight Over the Future of Recycling Brews as Plastics Legislation Gains Traction

The chemical industry says advanced recycling will change the game, but environmentalists are skeptical

INC4 News

Chemical companies, oil-and-gas incumbents and startups around the world are touting plans for new recycling facilities, promising to turn old bottles and bags into usable material. But policymakers are questioning whether some of these methods, broadly termed chemical or advanced recycling, should be considered recycling at all.

In June, during last-minute negotiations on a New York state packaging bill that would have forced companies to meet ambitious recycling standards and reduce their packaging waste by 30%, state legislators agreed that technologies like Eastman’s or Samsara Eco’s would not initially be considered “recycling.”

“We had a serious concern about the pseudo solution pushed by the industry called chemical recycling,” said Judith Enck, a former Environmental Protection Agency official and founder of Beyond Plastics, an advocacy group that supported the bill. In a report published last October, Beyond Plastics raised doubts about advanced recycling plants’ yield, emissions, byproducts and energy use. The group has argued that advanced recycling amounts to little more than a marketing tactic deployed to distract decision makers from proven waste-reduction methods, like using less packaging.

A recent ProPublica investigation found that the dominant advanced recycling technique, pyrolysis, yields 15% to 20% usable plastic materials. The rest turns into fuel and other chemicals. Traditional mechanical recycling yields 55% to 85% new plastic.

Lee Bell, technical and policy adviser for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, said advanced recycling advocates are making an aggressive push for international acceptance. “Here comes the playbook,” he said. “We’re going to have this molecular recycling and advanced recycling and hopefully convince regulators and people negotiating these conventions that it will be the solution, and we don’t need to have any other kind of impositions upon us.”

In the European Union, legislators are broadly in agreement that advanced recycling outputs used as fuel will not count as recycled materials, he said.

Since 2022, international negotiators have been working on the Global Plastics Treaty, a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. “The whole issue of chemicals in plastics is still a major part of the convention, though certain parties — petrostates — really want to cut that out,” said Bell.

Source: Stop Poison Plastic

Read the full story in the Wall Street Journal.