False Solutions: "Chemical Recycling"
Environmental organizations throughout the United States, including Sierra Club, have been pushing back on an onslaught of legislation attempting to permit so-called “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling” facilities. Proponents claim that “chemical recycling” breaks plastics down to be remade into new plastic products, however much of the output is fuel burned as energy, like outdated waste-to-energy incinerators but even dirtier. To make matters worse, these bills propose to regulate these types of plastic “recycling” (aka incineration) under environmental laws for manufacturing, rather than stricter environmental standards for recycling and waste facilities.
Plastics are toxic at every stage of production, from their source as oil and fracked gas, to their manufacturing into products that often contain toxic chemicals linked to chronic diseases such as cancer and reproductive disorders. End-of-life is no better! Plastics are difficult to recycle – in fact, a recent report asserts that only about 5 to 6% is currently being recycled in the U.S.
Photo: Incineration plant
It is no wonder then that some welcome a new technology that promotes itself as “advanced recycling.” We badly need solutions to the waste crisis. But this is not progress – it only makes things worse. “Chemical recycling” is the greenwashing of plastic incineration. The burning causes toxic air pollution, including benzene and other carcinogens and neurotoxicants, and uses more energy to produce the small amounts of reusable materials than it generates.
Unfortunately, 18 states have passed bills allowing “chemical recycling”, including New Hampshire. Just last month, Rhode Island advocates fought to stop one such bill that had already passed in their Senate. The outcry worked, and the House leader announced that she would not call the bill for a vote. Here at home, we successfully fought to stop two such bills last session. Our voices were heard! But the plastics industry will be back.
We all need to educate ourselves about “chemical recycling” and then we need to talk about this with friends and with our legislators. There are many positive solutions offered to reduce waste before it ends up in a landfill or incinerator. Let’s work to get those policies in place and reduce the waste stream, not look to some magic way of continuing to produce and use plastics! This only supports petroleum companies as they ramp up production, while polluting our air and water with plastic incinerators.
Here are some excellent resources to help you learn more!
C&EN, Chemical recycling of plastic gets a boost in 18 US states—but environmentalists question whether it really is recycling, Cheryl Hogue, May 15, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 17
NRDC, Expert Blog “Chemical Recycling” of Plastic: A Burning Issue, Veena Singla, March 7, 2022
NRDC, Recycling Lies: “Chemical Recycling” of Plastic Is Just Greenwashing Incineration, Issue brief by Veena Singla and Tessa Wardle, March 7, 2022
NRDC, Greenwashing Alert: “Chemical Recycling” Isn’t Actually Recycling. It’s Plastic Incineration, Nicole Greenfield, May 16, 2022
Beyond Plastics Fact sheet – False Solutions
The Atlantic, Plastic Recycling Doesn’t Work and Will Never Work, Judith Enck and Jan Dell, May 2022
Susan Eastwood is Chapter Chair of Sierra Club Connecticut.