Op-Ed: Advanced recycling puts more plastic back in service for cleaner future

Conventional recycling doesn’t work for many of the products that wind up in the dump, helping to create a 'plastic pandemic’
Dennis Hart

If you look around your home, office or grocery store, one thing you will notice is that there are a lot of products that use one form or another of plastic. These plastics play an important role, from helping to keep food fresh longer or cutting the weight of automobiles to help improve fuel efficiency, to keeping our families safe during a pandemic. Plastics also help reduce home-energy costs while keeping us warm in the winter and cool in the summer, but what do we do with them after their lifespan is over?

At the G-7 Summit last week in the United Kingdom, corporate leaders called on the world’s leading nations to address what is being described in media reports as the “plastic crisis” or “plastic pandemic.” Why would these corporations — some of the globe’s top plastic producers among them — be taking such a stand? Because despite what you may think you know about recycling, only 8.5% of plastic is ever recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. There are myriad complex reasons for this, but one basic factor is simply that some plastics cannot be recycled through traditional mechanical recycling techniques. Examples of these plastics include red plastic cups, medication bottles and plastic pouches (like those used as laundry detergent pods).

Innovations in chemistry are now creating solutions for a strong, sustainable future by unlocking the energy in these discarded materials and enabling a more circular economy for post-use plastics. How? Through manufacturing technologies known as advanced recycling.

Those technologies transform post-use plastics into valuable material for new plastics and more. By breaking down plastic into its original components, advanced recycling converts used plastic into building blocks for new products. These include plastics safe for food and pharmaceuticals, as well as products such as high-value waxes, additives for construction materials such as asphalt and roofing tiles, chemicals used in windshield-wiper fluid and cleaning products and even new plastics. New Jersey now has the opportunity to be a leader in reducing plastics that go to landfills by joining 14 other states — including our neighbors Pennsylvania and New York — in permitting advanced recycling.

Profitable new industry for NJ?

New Jersey currently recycles 131,800 tons of plastic through mechanical recycling every year. Diverting recoverable plastics in New Jersey from landfills to be converted into new plastics could displace up to an estimated 374,980 tons of plastic created from new resources each year.

Advanced recycling is also poised to create a profitable new industry for New Jersey. Converting just 25% of the recoverable plastics in New Jersey to plastic and chemical feedstocks and other products could support approximately five advanced-recycling and recovery facilities, generating $160.5 million in economic output each year.

Advanced recycling does not replace traditional mechanical recycling but complements it by recycling post-use plastic that is technically challenging and too costly to be mechanically recycled. Additionally, advanced recycling does not require plastic products to be only one type of plastic, nor does it involve combustion or incineration. Advanced recycling is an environmentally sound technology that produces the emissions equivalent to or less than a hospital, university or food-processing facility.

New Jersey has an opportunity to lead advanced recycling in both the region and the nation. A bill was recently introduced ( A-5803) that would make New Jersey an attractive location for an advanced-recycling facility. We urge everyone to support this legislation and ask that the Assembly and Senate advance this legislation quickly.

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