Advanced Recycling: Solving the Plastic Crisis or a Distraction?

PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) — The plastics industry says there’s a way to help solve the plastic waste crisis that has plagued the planet’s oceans, beaches and lands — chemically recycle it.

Chemical recycling typically uses heat or chemical solvents to break down plastic into a liquid and gas to produce an oil-like mixture or base chemicals. Industry leaders say the mixture can be turned back into plastic pellets to make new products.

Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, the industrial trade association for American chemical companies, said.

ExxonMobil, New Hope Energy, Nexus Circular, Eastman, Encina and other companies plan to build large plastic recycling plants. Seven smaller facilities across the United States already recycle plastic into new plastic, according to the ACC. A handful of others are turning used, hard-to-recycle plastics into alternative transportation fuels for aviation, marine and automotive uses.

But environmental groups say advanced recycling is distracting from real solutions like producing and using less plastic. They suspect that the idea of ​​recyclable plastic will enable the continued large increase in plastic production. And while the amount produced increases globally, recycling rates for plastic waste are very low, especially in the United States.

Plastic packaging, multi-layer films, bags, polystyrene foam, and other hard-to-recycle plastic products accumulate in landfills and in the environment, or go to incinerators.

Judith Enk, founder and president of Beyond Plastics, says recycling plastic doesn’t work and never will. She added that the chemical additives and colorings used to give plastic different properties mean there are thousands of species. For this reason they cannot be mixed together and recycled in the traditional mechanical way. She said there is not a huge market for recycled plastic, because virgin plastic is cheap.

What’s more likely to happen than actual recycling is that the industry will switch to burning plastic as waste or as fuel, said Enk, the former regional official with the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Lee Bell, policy advisor for the International Pollutant Removal Network, believes that chemical recycling is a public relations exercise by the petrochemical industry. The purpose is to dissuade regulators from capping plastic production. Bell said the plastics industry could become more important to the fossil fuel industry as climate change puts pressure on transportation fuels.

The industry has produced nearly 11 billion metric tons of plastic since 1950, half of which has been produced since 2006, according to industrial ecologist Roland Geyer. Global plastic production is expected to more than quadruple by 2050, according to the United Nations Environment Program and GRID-Arendal in Norway.

The International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that the share of plastic waste successfully recycled is expected to rise to 17% in 2060 from 9% in 2019 if additional policies are not enacted to constrain plastic demand and boost recycling, but that will not start in Keeping pace with the expected growth in plastic waste. With more ambitious policies in place, the amount of plastic waste recycled could rise as much as 40% to 60%, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Two groups working to reduce plastic pollution, Last Beach Clean Up and Beyond Plastics, estimated that the US rate of recycling plastic waste in 2021 was even lower – 5% to 6%, after China stopped accepting other countries’ waste in year 2018.

The US National Recycling Strategy says that no option, including chemical recycling, should be ruled out. The industry says the way to think of these new plants is as manufacturing plants. It should be legally defined this way, not as waste management. About 20 countries have adopted laws in the past five years in line with this desire. Opponents say it is a way to get around stricter environmental regulations that apply to waste management facilities.

Existing plants

U.S. facilities that currently recycle plastic into new plastic are small — the largest being the 60-ton-per-day plant in Akron, Ohio, Alterra Energy, according to the ACC.

Alterra Energy says it accommodates plastics that are difficult to recycle, such as flexible bags, multi-layer films and hard plastic from cars — everything except plastic water bottles where they are mechanically recycled, or plastic marked “3” because it contains polyvinyl chloride. , or PVC.

“Our mission is to solve the problem of plastic pollution,” said Jeremy Debendicts, president of the company. “This is not just a slogan. We all really want to solve the problem of plastic pollution.”

An Ohio facility typically handles 40 to 50 tons per day, heating and liquefying the plastic to reconvert it to oil or hydrocarbon liquid, about 10,000 gallons to 12,000 gallons per day. About 75% of what goes into the facility can be liquidated in this way. Another 15 percent is converted into synthetic natural gas to heat the process, while the rest — paper, metals, dyes, inks and colorants — exit the reactor as a byproduct, or carbonized coal, Debendictes said. Coal is disposed of as non-hazardous waste, although some hope in the future to sell it to the asphalt industry.

DeBenedictis said the process does not involve oxygen, so there is no combustion or burning of the plastic, and its products are trucked as synthetic oil to petrochemical companies, which are essentially “the building blocks at the molecular level for the production of new plastics.”

Debendicts said the materials they take, which so far could not be recycled, should not be sent to landfills, dumped in the ocean or incinerated.

“The next level has to be a new technology, what we call chemical recycling or advanced recycling. This is the next frontier.

“Let’s not kid ourselves here. Now is the time to do it,” added Fred Schmuck, the company’s CEO. “There is absolutely no way we can achieve our climate goals without treating plastic waste.”

DeBenedictis said he is licensing the technology to try to grow the industry because this is “the best way to make an impact faster in the world.” The Finnish oil and gas company, Neste, is currently marketing Alterra technology in Europe.

Major chemical recycling techniques use pyrolysis, gasification, or depolymerization. Neil Tangri, director of science and policy at the Global Alliance for Burn Alternatives, is skeptical. He says he’s heard that pyrolysis will change everything since the 1990s, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, plastic production continues to rise.

Tangrie said GAIA views chemical recycling as a fallacy that would facilitate greater production of virgin plastic — a high-energy process with high carbon emissions that releases dangerous air pollutants. Instead, GAIA wants to drastically reduce plastic production and produce only recyclable plastics.

“No one needs more plastic,” Tangri said. “We keep trying to solve these production problems with recycling when we really need to change how much we make and what we make. This is where the solution lies.”

Property rights issues in quoting plants

In Rhode Island, state lawmakers considered a bill this year to exempt such facilities from solid waste licensing requirements. It was vigorously opposed by environmental activists and residents near Providence Harbor, fearing it would lead to a new plant in their area. The state’s environmental officials sided with them.

Monica Huertas, executive director of the People’s Port Authority, helped lead the opposition. She said the neighborhood is already so overburdened with industry that she sometimes has asthma attacks after walking around.

Dwayne Keys said it’s not fair that he and his neighbors have always been wary of such proposals, unlike residents in some of the state’s affluent white neighborhoods. He added that the port area has enough environmental risks from which the residents do not benefit economically. Keys calls it environmental racism.

“The assessment is that we are the path of least resistance,” he said. “Not that there is no resistance, but the least. We are a coalition of volunteer individuals of our time. We do not have the wealth or access to resources or legal means, unlike our white counterparts in higher-income, higher-net-wealth societies.”

Baka of the Chemistry Council said the facilities are operating to the highest standards, the industry believes everyone deserves clean air and water, and he would invite any detractors to a facility so they can see it firsthand.

US plastic producers have said they will recycle or recover all plastic packaging used in the US by 2040, and have already announced more than $7 billion in investments in both mechanical and chemical recycling.

“I think we are on the cusp of a revolution in sustainability where circularity is going to be the focus of that,” Baka said. “And it will be innovative technologies such as advanced recycling that make this possible.”

Kate O’Neill has written a book on waste called Waste. A professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, I’ve thought a lot about whether chemical recycling should be part of the solution to the plastic crisis. She said it ended in a yes, although she knew saying so would “make the ire of environmentalists”.

“With some of these big problems, we can’t rule anything out,” she said.

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