INEOS and Agilyx just made official that they are moving forward with a previously announced 100-ton-per-day chemical recycling plant in Channahon, Illinois using polystyrene as feedstock. This follows a series of controversial transpirations around chemical recycling in Illinois, with a proposed bill (HB1616) garnering most attention.
HB1616 extends a deadline laid out in a 2019 bill—HB2491—from 2025 to 2027 for an undisclosed company or companies to get permitted to do chemical recycling in Will or Grundy County. HB2491, which also regulates the technology as manufacturing rather than waste management, passed 106 “yes” to 4 “no.”
Bill opposers, including The Illinois Environmental Council, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and the Ocean Conservancy, argue that a manufacturing classification allows for chemical recyclers to bypass a stringent review permitting process necessary for their intensive heat and pressure processes of pyrolysis or gasification, which break down plastic’s chemical bonds to make new products.
In their eyes, calling for a 2027 deadline for a plant referenced in a bill that passed in 2019 shows that such operations are not economically or technically feasible.
Supporters of HB1616, such as the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, American Chemistry Council, and the Recyclers Coalition of Illinois, say the deadline extension is necessary due to delays caused by COVID-19 and consequent supply chain glitches. And they contend in designating these sites as manufacturing, HB2491 clarifies a gray area: “whether postconsumer plastics otherwise destined for landfill, but now processed and cleaned, would be considered a raw material rather than waste,” says Mark Biel, chief executive officer, Chemical Industry Council of Illinois
Eight chemical recycling plants operate in the U.S. today. Just over 20 states regulate these processes as manufacturing.
When it comes down to it, environmental advocacy groups don’t want chemical recycling plants to come up from the ground anywhere, under any classification. They see it as greenwashing rather than fixing a waste problem.
“[Gasification or pyrolysis] is plastic to fuel as opposed to recycling, and it locks us into needing more virgin plastic to replace the plastic that is burned and turned into oil,” attested Anja Brandon, Ocean Conservancy Association director of U.S. Plastics Policy at a press event.
HB1616 and the 2019 law it amends enable plastics recycling to be classified as manufacturing when done via gasification or pyrolysis to make fuels, but also to produce waxes, lubricants, or “other raw materials or intermediate or final products.”
While initially focused on making synthetic crude oil, some chemical recyclers are making more plastics, for instance turning polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into synthetic feedstock to make new PET resins. Though a Natural Resources Defense Council review of the eight U.S. chemical recycling plants reports that the majority are not recycling plastic into new plastic packaging or products.
Permitting details in the language of HB1616 are unclear, says Brandon, concerned that while only two counties are named as proposed project sites there appears to be no limit to the location or number of allowable projects. Who would build and own them is also unknown, other than the two corporations who’ve made statements so far – INEOS who announced March 27 (after Brandon’s statement) and Braskem who recently signed a contract with Nexus Circular for feedstock for a Chicago plant to make polypropylene. Biel says another facility may be announced soon, though he is not authorized yet to discuss the deal.
Jen Walling, executive director, Illinois Environmental Council, says she has been approached by local citizens concerned about a plant possibly coming to their community. And she wants to know that these emissions-generating facilities won’t end up in already taxed environmental justice neighborhoods.
Other project naysayers point to lacking available information too.
“[Proponents] are trying to get the General Assembly to agree to permitting without going through normal EPA processes. Why is that the case? We need more transparency and light to understand,” says Andrea Densham, senior Strategic Advisor, Alliance for the Great Lakes.
As home to oil refineries, chemical production, and plastic production, Illinois and all of the Great Lakes Region are already disproportionately impacted by manufacturing emissions, Densham says.
“The last thing we need is more of that, especially when we have good sustainable solutions that don’t cause the same harm [such as scaling up reuse and refill models and creating nontoxic materials to replace fossil fuel–derived plastics].”
It makes economic sense to have these facilities near major metropolitan areas because it reduces transportation costs, and Will and Grundy Counties in particular are ideal locations since they have infrastructure to support these plants, Biel says.
Further, “It’s becoming clear that a significant number of ‘advanced’ (the industry’s name for “chemical”) recycling facilities are going to be built around the United States. The hope is some of these facilities will be built in Illinois rather than our neighboring states,” he says.
Other proposed legislation in Illinois could impact chemical recycling, and or chemical recycling could affect these emerging rules. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is one of them. EPR can coexist with chemical recycling say the technology’s supporters. They see it as a way for producers to mitigate plastic waste as these laws would require them to do. Those on the other side of the fence believe allowing chemical recycling in EPR laws would be an invitation to make more virgin materials rather than focus on upstream solutions and weaken what EPR can do.
An Illinois ban on polystyrene food containers that just passed March 24, 2023 would clearly seem counterproductive to long term-investments like that of INEOS and Agilyx to capture and recycle this material.
Illinois EPA [IEPA] should be moving faster to vet these technologies coming to the state, Walling says.
“In the four years since [HB2491] passed and IEPA was given authority to write rules on pyrolysis or gasification facilities, they haven’t.”
That’s a “huge concern” she says because new waste management technologies take time to thoroughly review; meanwhile projects could move through quickly with an easier permitting process.
HB1616 passed out of House committee on March 7, 2023, but did not get called for a vote prior to the March 24 deadline. So, it will likely not advance through the legislature this year.