As the tide of plastic waste rises, the US public is turning to elected officials for solutions. Legislators in 18 states have passed laws to encourage the chemical recycling of plastic, also known as advanced recycling. These laws deem chemical recycling facilities manufacturers, not waste-handling facilities. This classification can pave the way for government financial incentives and less-stringent regulation. Environmental advocates say the laws promote the processing of discarded plastics into home heating oil or other fuels through processes that are polluting and amount to incineration, which is not recycling as the public understands it. But the chemical industry says market demand for more recycled content in plastic means chemical recycling facilities are increasingly selling their products to polymer makers for feedstock. The industry is also using the state laws as backing as it seeks to loosen federal Clean Air Act regulation of facilities that use pyrolysis and gasification, two processes used for chemically recycling plastic.
Plastic pollution is virtually everywhere on earth, and the public is increasingly concerned about the buildup of plastic litter in neighborhoods, parks, and beaches as well as enormous garbage patches in the world’s oceans. Haunting photos of animals entangled in plastic cords or speared with plastic straws appear regularly on social media. And news reports about microplastics contaminating water and food stoke concern about how to keep this ubiquitous and popular synthetic material out of the environment.
In the US, people are asking their elected leaders to reduce plastic pollution.
To that end, environmental advocates are seeking policies to reduce the use of single-use plastics such as beverage bottles and snack bags. They point out that less than 10% of plastic used in the US ends up recycled.
Meanwhile, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the major trade group for the chemical industry, is offering another plan—policies to promote chemically recycling plastics by breaking them down into molecular building blocks for reuse. This process, also called advanced recycling, differs from mechanical recycling. The mechanical method, still in use, chips up used plastic into bits that are blended into virgin plastic, which is made from oil or natural gas, to give it recycled content.
“Policy makers are very interested” in advanced recycling, says Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability for the ACC. “Their constituents are coming to them and saying they want to see greater amounts and more types of plastics recycled in their communities.”
Lawmakers in states are responding to the ACC’s efforts. Earlier this year, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virginia enacted laws that ostensibly promote chemical recycling of used plastic. They joined 14 other states that have enacted similar legislation since 2017.
But environmental advocates say that these laws are the wrong way to go, in particular because existing processes for advanced recycling of plastics are energy intensive and generate pollution. The advocates also question applying the term recycling when the processes are used to generate fuels.
Industry effort to promote the new state laws “is all about public relations,” says Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, a group that seeks to end single-use plastic pollution through the reduction and reuse of the material. Producers are trying to acknowledge that plastic pollution is a problem while preserving business, she says.
Instead of working to generate less plastic waste, companies are seeking a technical fix that will let them keep producing—and reaping huge profits from—plastic, says Renée Sharp, the strategic adviser for Safer States, an alliance of health and safety advocates that tracks environmental legislation in states.
“We’re seeing legislators who think that they’re actually doing something that’s good for the environment, but they have bought the industry line. They don’t really understand what these technologies are,” Sharp tells C&EN. Backers of the state bills include Democrats and Republicans alike.
Manufacturing, not solid waste facilities
The state laws on advanced recycling share key provisions.
One is to classify chemical plastics recycling facilities as manufacturing plants, not as facilities that handle solid waste.
The ACC’s Cookson says these plants don’t meet the definition of solid waste facilities, which sort or transfer garbage, landfill it, or dispose of it via incineration. Solid-waste regulations also cover facilities that separate mixed material collected for recycling, including steel, glass, or cardboard.
In contrast, Cookson says, advanced recycling facilities “are taking in plastics and then producing a higher-value end product to sell,” he says. They’re not disposing of it in a landfill or via waste-to-energy combustion, he says.
The state laws offer regulatory stability to companies investing in new advanced recycling plants, says Bob Powell, CEO of Brightmark, which operates such a facility in Ashley, Indiana. Brightmark, a member of the ACC, has supported state legislation on advanced recycling, Powell says.
“To invest hundreds of millions of dollars and invest in hiring people, we need the certainty of how we’re going to be treated” as the company considers new facilities, Powell says.
Defining advanced plastics recycling plants as manufacturing facilities can, in some states, also carry important regulatory and economic advantages.
For instance, government financial incentives for new manufacturing plants can apply to the construction of advanced recycling facilities, says Veena Singla, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). These incentives include state and local tax breaks or access to government bonds to support construction.
According to news reports, the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority recently considered a proposal to offer Brightmark $500 million in industrial revenue bonds for a $680 million new plant in Georgia, a state that adopted a law on chemical plastics recycling in 2018. In the face of public opposition, the company and the local government scrapped the project in April.
On the regulatory front, the ACC’s Cookson notes that manufacturing plants anywhere in the US must meet pollution standards for water discharges and air emissions.
“Depending on the state, there may be weaker regulations for manufacturing versus solid waste facilities,” Singla says. And hazardous emissions from advanced plastics recycling plants are as bad as—or worse than—the toxic air pollution from waste incinerators, the NRDC and other groups allege.
Such facilities also raise environmental justice concerns, according to advocacy organizations. In a report released earlier this year, the NRDC examined eight chemical recycling facilities in the US. Of these, seven are in communities that disproportionately consist of people of color or people with low income or both, Singla says. Under federal law, most of the plants are considered large-quantity hazardous waste generators, facilities that generate 1,000 kg or more of hazardous waste per month.
Plastic to fuels?
According to Craig Cookson, a senior director for the American Chemistry Council, plants making feedstocks for new plastic from used plastic have three main products:
Feedstock that displaces crude oil or ethane in plastic production
Noncondensable hydrocarbon gases, notably propane, that are burned to produce energy for the facility
Char that is mostly carbon and can potentially be added to concrete or asphalt, used to produce carbon black, or landfilled
Environmental advocates are particularly concerned that most of the state laws enacted thus far specifically include the conversion of plastic to fuels in their definitions of advanced recycling. For instance, legislation enacted in 2019 in Iowa, Ohio, and Texas allows advanced plastics recyclers to produce crude oil, diesel, gasoline, and home heating oil as well as feedstocks to make plastic.
This provision conflates plastic-to-plastic and plastic-to-fuel processes, Singla of the NRDC says. This treatment might alleviate public concern about plastic waste but fails to curb demand for virgin plastic, she says.
“Just from a common-sense understanding, the whole point of recycling is to return materials into the material cycle,” decreasing the demand for resources to make new products and reducing waste, Singla says. And when fuels made from plastics are burned, they release harmful air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and climate-warming carbon dioxide, she points out.
Plus, the plastic-to-fuel process, which involves heat, doesn’t make thermodynamic or economic sense, environmental advocates say. Using heat to break down plastics into fuels such as diesel or home heating oil is highly energy intensive, according to Sharp of Safer States. A more economical and efficient way to obtain energy from plastic is combusting it in a waste-to-energy incinerator, Sharp says. But "we don't want to see incineration of any kind because of the serious toxic impacts on frontline communities," Sharp says. "The idea that companies are going to take plastic waste, use a lot of energy to turn it into fuels that then later get burned is just a tremendously bad plan," she says.
Not all the state laws allow fuel production from plastic to be considered recycling. The Kentucky statute says, “ ‘Advanced recycling’ does not include energy recovery or the conversion of post-use polymers into fuel substitutes for use in energy production.” A 2021 law in Arkansas contains a similar prohibition.
Other states’ laws lack such specificity but seem to leave room for interpretation. For example, laws adopted this year in West Virginia and Mississippi state that the products of advanced plastics recycling are “returned to economic utility” as raw materials or products.
In the past, the ACC pushed legislation allowing the definition of advanced recycling to include the production of fuels from plastic. Cookson stresses that starting now and moving into the future, the industry’s focus is on plastic-to-plastic recycling.
“The world has changed,” Brightmark’s Powell says. There is now “a huge demand” for plastic that incorporates used material, he says.
Consumer product companies such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever have committed to boosting the percentage of recycled content in their packaging. Plus, some states, including New Jersey and Washington, are mandating recycled content in plastic products as part of their procurement policies, Cookson says.
Brightmark’s Indiana plant, which initially focused on making fuels such as low-sulfur diesel, as well as wax, is pivoting, Powell says. It’s producing and selling more naphtha, a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons that is a feedstock for making plastics. And some of the material it produces from discarded plastic can also be fed into crackers to create additional feedstock for plastic, he says.
The company’s goal, Powell says, is to maximize the circularity—the continued reuse—of plastic and to minimize waste and the emission of greenhouse gases.
But environmentalists remain skeptical of efforts to turn used plastic into molecular building blocks for new plastics. Advanced recycling plants use pyrolysis and gasification to convert plastic into naphtha or styrene, depending on the type of used material they process. These heat-driven processes are tantamount to incineration, environmental and health advocates argue.
According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), these seven commercial-scale facilities in the US are turning used plastic into the chemical building blocks for new plastic. Most transport their product to buyers. Eastman Chemical and ExxonMobil reuse those building blocks in their own on-site plastic-making operations, according to the ACC.
▸ Agilyx, Tigard, Oregon
▸ Alterra Energy, Akron, Ohio
▸ Braven Environmental, Zebulon, North Carolina
▸ Eastman Chemical, Kingsport, Tennessee
▸ ExxonMobil, Baytown, Texas
▸ New Hope Energy, Tyler, Texas
▸ Nexus Circular, Atlanta, Georgia
A February report from the Natural Resources Defense Council raises environmental justice concerns about Agilyx, Alterra Energy, Braven Environmental, New Hope, and Nexus Circular as well as two other plants not named by the ACC. The plants, which generate hazardous waste, are located in communities with residents who are disproportionately low income, people of color, or both, the NRDC says.
Link to federal regulation
Meanwhile, the spread of state laws on advanced plastics recycling is giving political weight to a multisector effort seeking regulatory relief from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The ACC and others are asking the EPA not to require pyrolysis and gasification units to meet stringent federal Clean Air Act regulations that apply to incinerators combusting solid waste.
Under former president Donald J. Trump, the EPA proposed to grant the industry’s request. “We recognize that the pyrolysis process, by itself, is not combustion,” the agency says in a 2020 proposed rule.
The EPA hasn’t finalized that proposal, however. In September, the administration of President Joe Biden asked the public for further comment on the proposal. In that notice, the EPA points out that municipal, commercial, medical, and industrial waste incinerators use pyrolysis and gasification units.
The EPA is considering comments submitted by the ACC, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Beyond Plastics, and others. But the political pressure to grant the industry request grows as more states adopt advanced plastics recycling laws.
The ACC’s goal is to have regulation of advanced plastics recycling that is appropriate to protect public health and be consistent with controls on other manufacturers, Cookson says. Chemically recycling plastic, he says, does not involve handling or disposing of waste. Instead, it involves converting material into a higher-value product that is sold.
“The very nature of this business is to preserve every single molecule,” Cookson says.
This controversy is spreading to the US Congress. In the House of Representatives, 25 Democrats are seeking legislative language that would direct the EPA to maintain the current regulation of air emissions from chemical recycling plants, which is the same as for certain waste incinerators.
Meanwhile, more states are expected to consider bills to promote chemical plastics recycling in future legislative sessions, Sharp of Safer States says. Plastics recycling provisions are also starting to appear in state bills on extended producer responsibility, Enck of Beyond Plastics says.
The concept behind extended producer responsibility is for packaging manufacturers to help pay for for the disposal and recycling of their products. Enck and other advocates don’t want chemical recycling, including fuel production, to count as plastics recycling in these bills. Enshrining such provisions in laws would give packaging producers little incentive to reduce plastic use, Enck says.
The environmental advocates maintain that the best way to address the world’s plastic crisis is to curb the production of plastic items that are used once and discarded. They see industry efforts to promote plastics recycling via state laws as a means to grow plastic production.
“The chemical and plastics industries want to keep making loads and loads and loads of single-use toxic plastic,” Sharp says.
This story was updated on May 24, 2022, to add quotes from Renée Sharp of Safer States to better reflect her thinking about incineration. Although she believes waste-to-energy incinerators are more economical than plastic-to-fuel processes, she does not think plastic should be incinerated in lieu of plastic-to-plastic recycling.