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“Dangerous deception”: Beyond Plastics and IPEN report slams chemical recycling as “pseudo-solution”

#“Dangerous deception”: Beyond Plastics and IPEN report slams chemical recycling as “pseudo-solution”

01 Nov 2023 — Beyond Plastics and IPEN (the International Pollutants Elimination Network) have released a study report suggesting that chemical recycling is “more of a marketing and lobbying tactic by the petrochemical industry than an effective solution to the problem of plastic waste.” 

The report titled “Chemical Recycling: A Dangerous Deception” challenges the viability and safety of chemical recycling as a solution to plastic pollution. It argues that chemical recycling does not align with the goal of reducing global plastic pollution and may even support expanding plastic production. 

“For many of the same reasons why traditional recycling of plastics has been an abysmal failure, chemical recycling has also failed for decades. Plastic waste is expensive to collect, sort and clean, and its variety of chemicals, colors and polymers makes it inherently too difficult to be made into new plastic products,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator at a press conference.  

“This report reveals the truth hidden behind the plastic and fossil fuel industry’s misleading marketing campaign: Chemical recycling isn’t new — it has not worked for decades, and the few operating facilities are hurting the planet and people, particularly low-income communities and communities of color.” 

The report presents findings from case studies of existing chemical recycling facilities in the US. It highlights instances where these facilities failed to operate effectively or meet their expected goals. Issues include contaminated plastic waste, hazardous waste generation, low output and safety concerns. In some cases, facilities received subsidies but were unable to deliver the promised results, leading to project abandonment.

specialty chemical factory in the netherlandsThe report discusses the US government’s findings that the economic and environmental impacts of pyrolysis and gasification are significantly higher than those of virgin polymer production.“Even if all 11 US facilities operated at full capacity, they’d handle less than 1.3% of the US plastic waste. Chemical recycling is nothing more than another industry PR stunt to distract the public and deter policymakers from doing the one thing that can realistically curb the plastic pollution crisis: reduce plastic production,” stresses Enck.

Industrial struggles
The report notes that chemical recycling primarily relies on technologies such as pyrolysis and gasification, leading to technical and commercial struggles. These technologies often produce petrochemical fuels, which, when burned, emit toxic emissions and GHGs. The report also underscores the high costs, pollution and energy intensity associated with each step of the chemical recycling process.

Enck explains that advanced recycling refers to a set of technologies or processes that attempt to use heat, pressure or solvents to break down plastic into gasses, chemicals, oils, tars or waxes. These processes often produce toxic substances as byproducts. 

“And then there is the plastic industry unicorn turning old plastic into new plastic, referred to as repolymerization. The handful of facilities in the US that are operating mostly turn waste plastic into climate-warming fossil fuels — the last thing we need.”

“Of the 11 facilities profiled in this report, three produce feedstocks for new plastics, three exclusively produce fuels, and the rest produce a combination of plastic feedstocks, fuels or chemicals. The report identifies several major problems with chemical recycling, including its inability to work at scale, its creation of new pollution, its energy-intensive nature, its high costs often relying on public subsidies, and its potential risks to environmental justice and low-income communities.” emissions coming out of chimneys of a factoryThe report presents findings from case studies of 11 chemical recycling facilities in the US, highlighting instances where the facilities failed to operate effectively or meet expected goals.

Conventions and councils reject
The report mentions that the 2023 Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention did not include chemical recycling in the global technical guidance for managing plastic waste, as it could not demonstrate environmentally sound management. The report underscores that chemical recycling is not considered environmentally sound, is unlikely to address plastic pollution effectively and should not receive public funds, subsidies or tax breaks. 

The report highlights the global perspective on chemical recycling, emphasizing its rejection as environmentally sound waste management by the Basel Convention. It also explores the relevance of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in relation to toxic compounds generated during chemical recycling.

“Our report, produced by IPEN and Beyond Plastics, provides a comprehensive review of chemical recycling of plastic waste. It reveals decades of evidence indicating that chemical recycling has never been an economically or environmentally safe way to manage plastic waste, and there is no indication that this will change soon,” said IPEN science policy advisor Lee Bell, the lead author of the report, at the press conference yesterday. 

“There is no miracle technology on the horizon. In short, chemical recycling will not help resolve the plastics crisis.” 

“This conclusion is not unique to our report. A recent report by the Nordic Council found that, in the best-case scenario, chemical recycling would only process about 3% of the projected plastic waste generated in 2040, which is around 14 million tons. This is a small fraction compared to the hundreds of millions of tons produced in 2040. The report questions whether using this technology is worthwhile given the massive amounts of toxic waste produced by chemical recycling and other environmental problems associated with it.”

“For these reasons, our report emphasizes that the industry’s hype around chemical recycling should not be considered a solution and should be seen as a dangerous deception. Governments should focus on solutions that promote significant reductions in plastic production and innovation using safer materials.”

smoke and greenhouse gases emitted from a factoryThe report highlights global perspective on chemical recycling, emphasizing its rejection as environmentally sound waste management by the Basel Convention.Policy recommendations 
Chapters in the report present information on existing chemical recycling plants in the US, discussing their financing, outputs and potential impact on environmental justice communities. The report delves into the deregulation efforts in the chemical recycling sector and the technical data related to emissions, waste streams and toxic plastic feedstock. 

Furthermore, the report raises concerns about the relaxation of regulations in some states, increasing the health and environmental risks for communities living near chemical recycling facilities. It emphasizes that government subsidies for chemical recycling are risky investments in an unproven and potentially harmful technology.

“The landscape of chemical recycling in the US is littered with failure and pollution,” said Beyond Plastics deputy director and report contributor Jennifer Congdon. The report discusses the US government’s findings that the economic and environmental impacts of pyrolysis and gasification are significantly higher than those of virgin polymer production.

The report concludes with recommendations and calls for immediate action to address the plastic pollution crisis by producing less toxic plastic, substituting sustainable materials for plastics, and abandoning the myth of chemical recycling as a viable solution. It emphasizes the situation’s urgency and the potential consequences of inaction, including environmental, social and economic costs.

Based on the findings and case studies, the report includes the following recommendations:

  • Declare a national moratorium on new chemical recycling plants.
  • Require extensive analyses and testing of existing chemical recycling plants’ toxic emissions, releases, waste residues, wastewater, output contamination levels, and fire and explosion risks.
  • Deny approval or permitting of chemical recycling plants if risks from their emissions or products (for example, fuels) exceed a one in 1 million excess public cancer risk.
  • Mandate testing of oils and other outputs from chemical recycling before they can be used as fuel or plastic feedstock to prevent widespread contamination of products and human exposure to unacceptable toxic risks.
  • End all federal, state and local incentives for establishing chemical recycling plants.
  • End siting of chemical recycling plants in environmental justice communities.
  • Prohibit plastic-to-fuel projects.
  • Implement the “polluter pays” principle and ensure that the petrochemical industry bears all financial risks.
  • Prohibit chemical recycling of any form to count toward recycling targets or recycled content goals in any public policy or program, including EPR programs.
  • Prohibit free-allocation mass balance accounting in determining the recycled content of products that incorporate chemical recycling outputs.

By Radhika Sikaria

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