Water Bottles
Photo by TH Carlisle.

Advanced recycling sounds like a good thing, right? Yet the process, also called chemical recycling, that is being touted by the plastics industry is anything but, says a new report.

“Advanced recycling by proponents in Pennsylvania is by and large the opposite,” says the report published by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), a global network of 800 grassroots groups, NGOs and individuals.

Endorsed by the Clean Air Council, PennEnvironment and Nothing Left to Waste, the report finds that existing petrochemical facilities are primarily turning plastic into fuel to be burned.

“While the petrochemical industry has flooded the world with even more plastic, it has also maintained that the answer to the plastic pollution problem is not making less of it, but rather investing in downstream techno-fixes,” says the report.

“One, in particular, has risen to buzzword status in the plastic scene: ‘chemical recycling.’ It is a term often used by the petrochemical industry that conflates plastic-to-plastic and plastic-to-fuel technologies as a form of recycling. In this report, we use the term ‘chemical recycling’ to refer to the technology behind both plastic-to-plastic and plastic-to-fuel operations, although only the former truly qualify as recycling operations and we reject the use of the term for plants that mainly produce plastic-to-fuel.”

The key findings: chemical recycling releases toxic chemicals into the environment, has a large carbon footprint, is not yet proven to scale and cannot compete in the market or be part of the circular economy.

“Calling a hot dog sushi doesn’t make it sushi, and calling burning plastics ‘recycling’ doesn’t make it anything other than what it is: just another way to burn fossil fuels,” said Stephanie Wein, a conservation advocate with PennEnvironment.

The GAIA report was issued as the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed House Bill 1808 on July 7, which would redefine recycling in the state to include some of the processes of incineration and fossil fuel production.

“The Commonwealth is about to set a horrible precedent by defining plastic combustion as recycling,” says Wein. “Plastic and fossil fuel companies see the writing on the wall,” she says. “We want to move away from [fossil fuels] and the only way they know they’ll survive is if they give their process a fancy name that will delude policymakers and their constituents.”

Apparently, it’s working. Bill 1808 passed easily in the PA House by a vote of 155-46. Why? “There were a lot of folks who voted for it who are very good on the environment,” says Wein. “We’re working to educate Senators now that this isn’t recycling.”

The bill was introduced by Representative Ryan E. Mackenzie (R) of District 134 and co-sponsored by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. In addition to redefining recycling, HB 1808 would allow these facilities to receive state funding, according to PennEnvironment, and weaken pollution control standards.

The PA Senate is expected to vote on the bill in the fall.

The greenwashing of the term is happening across the country, Wein says, as the plastics industry aims to redefine plastic recycling as advanced recycling. According to the Advanced Recycling Alliance for Plastics website:

“Advanced plastics recycling, also called chemical recycling or advanced recycling and recovery, refers to several different processes that use existing and emerging technologies that return post-use plastics to their basic chemical building blocks for creating a versatile mix of new plastics, chemicals, fuels and other products.”

The GAIA report follows a technical assessment which found that the technology behind the so-called advanced recycling not only doesn’t qualify as a solution but will most likely make the plastics and climate crisis worse.

Over half of the plastic that is processed in these facilities results in climate pollution (CO2), says PennEnvironment. That’s on top of the emissions from burning the resulting fuel.

The GAIA report highlights “the danger of wasting time and money on flawed and potentially dangerous waste management approaches like plastic-to-fuel, versus proven approaches like reducing the amount of plastic produced by passing policies that limit the use of single-use plastics,” says PennEnvironment.

“Plastics are the new villain of the climate fight, and politicians can’t fall for industry’s claims that they have a silver bullet solution, especially when the evidence does not back up those claims. With the rising crises of climate change, pollution and economic insecurity under the backdrop of a global pandemic, we have no more time or money to waste on dangerous tech fixes. Decision-makers need to fight climate change and plastic pollution at the source, by pursuing policies that place limits on production and support zero waste systems,” says Denise Patel, program director for GAIA US/Canada.

“Among other things, what’s not being addressed is the high cost to municipalities to recover plastics currently in the waste stream and sort it at a recycling facility before it can even be sent to a chemical recycler,” adds Alex Danovitch of Nothing Left to Waste. “If we want real solutions to eliminating plastics waste, this money could be better spent on building reusable and refillable infrastructure that brings economic development and jobs to our community.”

Dannys Marrero

A Puerto Rico native, Reservist and Paralegal student, who now calls Pittsburgh home. A resident of Oakland and lover of all-things politics by day; sparkling Drag Queen by night.