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The “advanced recycling” mirage: NRDC report slams plastic industry duplicity over chemical technology

March 27, 2022
Energy & Chemical Value Chain

Chemical recycling technologies in the US are mostly “greenwashing” scams, according to a recent report by non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which accuses plastics corporations of using dubious new technologies to dupe the public while continuing to pollute the environment of poorer communities throughout the country.

The report comes as advanced recycling, which uses various methods to break down materials unsuitable for traditional mechanical recycling infrastructure, is becoming increasingly touted as a potential panacea for waste management.

With as little as 8.7% of all plastics in the US recycled each year, and over 242 million metric tons produced annually, the NRDC says chemical recycling is merely a way for plastics corporations to continue incinerating their waste under the guise of new processes.

The report states that the term “chemical recycling” encompasses many methods that fall into two categories: plastic-to-fuel and plastic-to-chemical components. Plastic-to-fuel conversion is done using pyrolysis or gasification, both of which use heat and chemical processes to break plastic waste down into products that are turned into fuels.

Plastic-to-chemical components use treatments such as heat and solvents to create feedstocks that proponents claim can be further processed into other chemicals or new plastics. “Both categories of chemical recycling are fraught with health, environmental, social, and economic concerns,” reads the report.

The four “advanced” methods
The NRDC details four central chemical processes currently being used or under development in the US:

  • Pyrolysis: Categorized as a type of “thermal depolymerization,” it uses high temperatures and low-oxygen conditions to degrade plastic thermally. The primary product is a liquid/oil that can be refined into fuels or further processed to create chemicals or plastic.
  • Gasification: Categorized as a type of “thermal depolymerization,” this uses high temperatures with air or steam to degrade plastic. The primary product is a gas called “synthesis gas” (or “syngas”) that can be processed into fuels or chemicals.
  • Solvent-based processes: Also called solvent-based purification or recycling, this method uses solvents and other chemicals to dissolve plastics and separate polymers from other components. Recovered polymers must be further processed to create new plastics.
  • Chemical depolymerization: Defined by using thermal and chemical reactions to break the plastic polymer chain into individual units (monomers). The monomers are recovered and purified and can be made into new plastic. The process is currently applicable only to certain types of plastic. It is distinct from solvent-based processes because the polymers are broken down.

Poisoning the US
According to EU directives, producing fuel from plastic waste does not qualify as recycling by international standards.

Additionally, it requires continued plastic inputs to create fuels that, just like typical fossil fuels, produce harmful air pollution and greenhouse gasses when burned, says NRDC.

“Therefore, plastic-to-fuel is incompatible with circular-economy or zero-carbon goals. Previous analyses have also found that plastic-to-chemical components ‘recycling’ is barely present on a commercial scale in the US. Plastic-to-fuel processes are more common.”

NRDC has reviewed Environmental Protection Agency databases, environmental permit information, and other relevant information to map out US chemical recycling facilities that are operational, under construction or already shut down. Many appeared to have been opened and closed in a brief time span, indicating many companies may be using these projects as public relations stunts.

Most of those found facilities fall into the plastic-to-fuel category.

Social discrimination and advanced recycling
The report also notes that communities of color already disproportionately bear the burden of health risks from plastics manufacturing. This process releases highly toxic chemicals because these facilities are often located in their neighborhoods.

There is a similar pattern of unequal impacts in chemical recycling facilities. Of the eight facilities researched, six are in communities that are disproportionately black or brown, and five are in communities where a disproportionate percentage of households have an income below US$25,000, relative to national averages. According to the report, a combined total of about 380,000 people currently live within three miles of the eight facilities and could be impacted by their toxic emissions.

“Despite the fact that plastic-to-fuel does not recycle plastic, industry continues to support it strongly. This is likely because plastic-to-fuel creates a mirage of ‘recycling’ to assuage public concerns about increased plastic use and waste but does not disrupt new plastic production.”

“This paves the way for continued profits and the expansion of plastic production facilities. Ensuring that plastic-to-fuel remains excluded from official definitions of recycling will make it difficult for plastic manufacturers to succeed in this greenwashing.”

By Louis Gore-Langton


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