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Chemical recycling won’t fix plastic waste problem, new report says

Advocacy groups assert process spews toxic waste and greenhouse gases

by Leigh Krietsch Boerner
November 2, 2023


Hands holding shredded plastics at the Alterra chemical recycling plant in Akron, Ohio.
Credit: Alex Tullo/C&EN
Alterra Energy's chemical recycling plant breaks down shredded and densified plastic via pyrolysis.

A report by the advocacy groups Beyond Plastics and International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) says chemical recycling of plastics creates large amounts of toxic waste, contributes to climate change, and is not a sustainable solution to the growing plastic waste problem.

Chemical recycling, sometimes called advanced recycling, breaks down plastic polymers by either pyrolysis into mixed hydrocarbons or depolymerization into monomers. The advocacy groups performed case studies of the 11 chemical recycling plants currently operating in the US and concluded that chemical recycling mainly produces hazardous waste and greenhouse gases and only small amounts of material that could be turned into new plastic.

“US facilities are handling an insignificant amount of waste,” Jennifer Congdon, deputy director of Beyond Plastics and one of the report’s authors, said in a press conference about the report. Of the 11 plants, 3 are operating at large scale. The remainder are pilot plants, operating at rates well below their designed capacity, in the testing process, or otherwise small scale. If all the plants were running at full capacity, they would have the ability to process less than 1.3% of the annual plastic waste produced in the US, according to the report.

Of the marketable products the plants are making, most are oils that, after cleaning, are burned as fuel on-site or are sold to third parties. “Making plastic into fuel to burn is not recycling,” the report says. “According to internationally accepted definitions, plastic to fuel is not recycling. It is a dirty and dangerous disposal method.”

Beyond Plastics, IPEN, and other advocacy groups are hoping that the process will not be included in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution. This treaty continues to be negotiated; the third of four meetings is set for Nov. 13-19 in Nairobi, Kenya. Another international treaty, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, does not consider chemical recycling to be recycling.

In the draft of the National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution, the US Environmental Protection Agency states that chemical recycling processes that produce fuels are not considered recycling.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade association that advocates for chemical recycling, calls the Beyond Plastics/IPEN report “misleading” and “false” in an email to C&EN. An ACC representative says the report ignores newer data. The group cites a recent US Department of Energy paper that found that making plastic with 5% pyrolysis oil creates 18% to 23% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than making plastic with crude oil. The study was funded by the ACC.

Jeremy DeBenedictis, president of Alterra Energy, which operates one of the 11 plants, also says the report contains errors. He points to a line that states Alterra’s plant was releasing close to its air emissions limit while operating at a pilot scale and says Alterra’s emissions were well below the limit. When asked for more information on the purported error, DeBenedictis says he is not able to reply by the publication time of this story.

Melissa Valliant, communications director of Beyond Plastics, notes that the ACC study is based on modeling and prediction data rather than operational data. “Our report is well documented with nearly 600 citations to scientific peer-reviewed articles, records from multiple government agencies, plastics industry trade publications, reputable newspapers, and investigative journals,” she says. “We stand by our findings.”


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