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Beyond Plastics Report Lambastes Chemical Recyclers

Beyond Plastics and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) released a report on U.S. chemical recycling facilities. Report authors argue that proponents who call their technologies “advanced recycling” are deceitful about their capabilities and withholding details on their alleged dangers.

Arlene Karidis

December 6, 2023

4 Min Read
Charles Stirling / Alamy Stock Photo

Beyond Plastics and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) released a report on U.S. chemical recycling facilities.

The top of list of criticisms in the 159-page document are that these operations lack transparency; hurt the environment and human health; are energy-intensive and expensive; and don’t work at scale.

Report authors argue that proponents who call their technologies “advanced recycling” are deceitful about their capabilities and withholding details on their dangers. The document recommends policies to ban or at least tighten the reins on the industry.

Plastic recycling in general falls flat, Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics argued at a recent press conference. The expansive mix of polymers, chemical additives, and colorants renders them impossible to process together. Similar problems will continue to plague chemical recycling, she said of the technologies that use high heat, pressure, and/or solvents to break down plastics into their building blocks to make fuels, plastic feedstocks, and/ or chemicals.

“During our review of decades of peer-reviewed literature, we found chemical recycling has never been an economical or environmentally safe way to manage plastic waste and no evidence to suggest this will change soon,” said Lee Bell, technical and policy advisor, IPEN and key author of the report.

Bell began by unraveling some of the story of plastic’s toxicity.

The principal of chemical recycling is to separate useful materials such as hydrocarbons and monomers from contaminants. But purifying and separating them requires removing various toxic compounds, which creates harmful byproducts that are ultimately landfilled or burned, contributing to hazardous emissions, he said.

There’s the issue of scale. Even if all 11 U.S. chemical recycling plants operated at full capacity—some are not—they could reportedly handle 1.3% of plastic waste generated in this country.

Next on the authors’ blacklist is impact on the planet. The study shines light on government research that found chemical recycling creates as much as 100 times more climate/environmental impact than the production of virgin plastic.

“Many of them are turning plastic into fuel, which by international standards is not considered recycling. In this scenario it is converted to fossil fuel and burned again and released as emissions,” Bell said.

The authors reported that at least eight of the facilities are producing fossil fuels for power. And eight of them are located in areas where incomes are lower than the national average while five are in communities with a very high concentration of people of color.

“We are very concerned about widespread expansion of chemical recycling in these environmental justice communities because of risks it presents, compounding risks already imposed on these communities,” Bell said.

The report discloses more details around each of the 11 plants, finding at least four of them are operating at a pilot or demo scale, and four are partially or intermittently operating.

Eight of them have no publicly available data showing how much feedstock they processed: Alterra in Ohio, Braven in North Carolina, Eastman in Tennessee, ExxonMobil in Texas, Fulcrum BioEnergy in Nevada, New Hope Energy in Texas, Prima America in New Hampshire, and PureCycle in Ohio. Ten of the facilities reportedly have no publicly available data on what products they create.

Many of the operators are struggling to make a profitable product, and/or facing operational challenges, according to Jennifer Congdon, Beyond Plastics deputy director and report contributor.  By her and her colleagues’ account Agilyx, the parent company of Regenyx in Oregon, sustained operating losses of $22.4 million in 2020-2021.  

Congdon said that Brightmark abandoned proposed plans to build a Georgia plant when it could not secure subsidies after failing to prove its Indiana plant was successfully making and selling a product.

Fulcrum’s Sierra plant in Nevada recently defaulted on $290M in environmental improvement revenue bonds and is now on an accelerated repayment track, directed by debt holders.

Congdon stated that PureCycle defaulted on its obligations when it couldn’t meet the construction completion date for its Ironton, Ohio plant, secured a default wavier, but later met up with mechanical problems, temporarily halting production. PureCycle just announced the plant is up and running after reporting earlier “unexpected delays” attributed largely to slow equipment deliveries.

The industry has seen some successes along the way, particularly on the policy front. Twenty-four states have passed legislation classifying chemical recycling facilities as manufacturing rather than waste disposal. This means they are subject to less environmental oversight and may have a greater chance of securing government subsidies.

Beyond Plastics and IPEN are pushing for a change in course. The two nonprofits’ report makes the following recommendations:

  • Declare a national moratorium on new chemical recycling plants.

  • Require analyses and testing of existing chemical recycling plants’ 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 exceed a one in 1 million excess public cancer risk.

  • Mandate testing of oils and other outputs before they can be used as fuel or plastic feedstock.

  • End 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.

  • Ensure that the petrochemical industry bears all financial risks of chemical recycling and the manufacture, use, and disposal of plastics.

  • Prohibit chemical recycling from counting toward recycling targets or recycled content goals in public policy and programs.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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