Op-Ed: Don’t believe the hype about ’advanced recycling’

Judith Enck | July 1, 2021 | Opinion
Former EPA Regional Administrator says advanced recycling ‘will not solve our plastic pollution crisis or slow climate change’
Judith Enck

Plastic pollution is a threat to our planet and our health. Every year, at least 15 million tons of plastic waste enters our oceans. Plastic is also polluting our air, soil, drinking water, and food. Recent studies found that adults are consuming roughly a credit card’s worth of plastic every week and documented microplastics in the human placenta. Few are aware that plastic is also hastening the climate crisis at every step of its life cycle from extraction to production to usage to disposal. In fact, if plastic was a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Yet rather than reducing plastic production — the only true solution to our plastic waste crisis — the Chemistry Council of New Jersey is pushing “advanced recycling,” a deeply flawed approach that would allow the industry to continue to expand the overproduction of plastics while paying lip service to solving the problem. The U.S. is already littered with expensive, high-profile advanced recycling failures. We do not need another one of these polluting and ineffectual facilities sited in New Jersey.

“Advanced” or “chemical recycling” is a process that theoretically breaks down plastic waste into its molecular components to be turned back into new plastics to support a “circular economy” but it’s been a big enough flop that even the pro-plastic industry publication Plastics Today is questioning its value and viability. High-profile failures include Loop Industries which claimed to be able to “infinitely” recycle plastics but turned out to have no viable technology. In 2020, the company was accused of fraud, stocks plummeted, and Loop now faces class-action lawsuits. This may seem like a one-off, but out of the 37 chemical recycling facilities proposed in the U.S. since 2000, just three are in operation. Of these three facilities, two convert plastic waste into low-grade, heavily polluting fuel rather than new plastics (so much for the circular economy), and none have been proven to recover plastics and make new materials on a commercial scale. In addition to being both unproven and expensive, advanced recycling is also a major source of greenhouse gases and air pollution, emitting three tonnes of CO2 for every one tonne of plastic processed and toxicants including cancer-causing, endocrine- and immune-disrupting dioxins and furans, heavy metals including mercury, cadmium and lead, and particulate matter.

‘Unproven and expensive’

In addition to being both unproven and expensive, advanced recycling is also a major source of greenhouse gases and air pollution, emitting three tonnes of CO2 for every one tonne of plastic processed and toxicants including cancer-causing, endocrine- and immune-disrupting dioxins and furans, heavy metals including mercury, cadmium and lead, and particulate matter.

Whether it’s called advanced recycling, chemical recycling, gasification, waste-to-energy, or pyrolysis, the data demonstrates that these approaches will not solve our plastic pollution crisis or slow climate change. But they will suck up the time, energy, and government funding needed to tackle them in time to avoid catastrophic impacts to our health and environment.

Although I’m not surprised that plastic and chemical companies are supporting these boondoggles, I am surprised that Assembly member John F. McKeon has introduced a bill that would exempt this risky technology from New Jersey’s existing solid-waste and recycling regulations. Who does that serve?

As the demand for fossil fuels for electricity generation and transportation falls, the petrochemical industry is banking on a massive expansion in  the production and sale of plastics made from ethane, a byproduct of cheap hydro fracked gas, to prop up its falling bottom line — a Hail Mary for the entire industry. The industry is investing billions of dollars in plastics manufacturing facilities, including new pipelines, injection wells, rail lines, ports, and ethane crackers. This build-out is concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color in Pennsylvania and Ohio as well as in Louisiana and Texas, where petrochemical pollution has been sickening residents for decades — the region is called “Cancer Alley” for a reason.

Roughly 40% of the new plastics produced are destined for a single use and the vast majority of them will end up being landfilled or burned in, you guessed it, low-income communities and communities of color, exposing residents to round two of toxic air pollution from plastic. The rest will be shipped overseas to developing countries that lack adequate infrastructure to handle it. Watch the documentary film, The Story of Plastic for a close-up look at what’s really happening to your old yogurt containers, soda bottles, toothpaste tubes, and potato chip bags.

While it’s not surprising that the petrochemical industry is fighting tooth and nail to prevent the source reduction of plastic, it is imperative that the New Jersey state Legislature embrace the concept of reducing plastic production as the key solution to our rapidly escalating plastic waste and climate change crises.

Assembly member McKeon, who otherwise has a good record on environmental issues, would serve the people of New Jersey better by withdrawing his bill (A-5803) supporting advanced recycling and instead turn his attention to advancing solutions that actually work: reuse, refill, and reducing plastic production. We can’t afford to waste more time or money on advanced recycling or any of the other false solutions glibly promoted by the plastic industry. We must turn off the plastic tap.

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