Philadelphia, PA— Amid a growing recognition of the crisis of plastic pollution, industry has touted a process marketed as “chemical” or "advanced" recycling—which claims to break plastic down into its component molecules to be made into new plastic—as a solution to the plastic crisis.
However, a new report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and endorsed by the Clean Air Council, PennEnvironment, and Nothing Left to Waste reveals that the process touted as “advanced recycling” by proponents in Pennsylvania is by and large the opposite. Instead, existing facilities are primarily turning plastic into fuel to be burned. This network of waste and burn facilities overburden low-income communities and communities of color. This has serious climate and health implications and must be halted if we are to beat plastic pollution and climate change.
The report follows a technical assessment which found the technology to be polluting, carbon intensive, and riddled with system failures, not only disqualifying it as a solution to the plastics crisis, but concluding that these processes and facilities will most likely make the plastic and climate crisis worse. Over half of the plastic that is processed in these facilities comes out as climate pollution (CO2). That's on top of the emissions from burning the resulting fuel.
The report's findings come out as the Pennsylvania General Assembly moves House Bill 1808 which would set the dangerous precedent of redefining "recycling" in the state to include some of the processes of incineration and fossil-fuel production by creating a new definition for "advanced recycling", and allowing these facilities to receive state funding. HB 1808 would also weaken pollution control standards for these facilities. The legislation passed the state House by a vote of 155-46 and awaits action in the Pennsylvania State Senate. Its conclusions highlight the danger of wasting time and money on flawed and potentially dangerous waste management approaches like plastic-to-fuel, versus proven approaches like reducing the amount of plastic produced by passing policies that limit the use of single-use plastics.
“Calling a hot dog sushi doesn’t make it sushi, and calling burning plastics "recycling" doesn’t make it anything other than what it is: just another way to burn fossil fuels,” said Stephanie Wein, Conservation Advocate at PennEnvironment. “The Commonwealth is about to set a horrible precedent by defining plastic combustion as recycling.”
● Industry misuses the terms “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling,” when in fact, most facilities are not operational, and the few that are are primarily Plastic-to-Fuel (PTF). Plastic-derived fuels are fossil fuels that spend a very small portion of their lifecycle as plastic. This is not recycling; it is an expensive and complicated way to burn fossil fuels.
● “Chemical Recycling” is an industry greenwashing tactic, not a viable solution to the plastics crisis. The fossil fuel industry is investing over $164 billion in expanding plastic production in the U.S., 35 times the amount that they claimed to invest in “chemical recycling.” Promoting this tech-fix instead of truly closed-loop processes will only increase the nation's addiction to single-use plastics as these facilities would need a continuous fuel source.
● “Chemical recycling” has a large carbon footprint, and poses a climate risk. Over half of the plastic that is processed in these facilities comes out as climate pollution (CO2). That's on top of the emissions from burning the resulting fuel.
● “Chemical Recycling” is an environmental health risk, particularly to already overburdened communities. Every step of the process produces toxicants, from the waste processing sites themselves, in the end use of the products they produce, and at the facilities where the waste from the process is dumped, destroyed, or treated. The chemical recycling industry is looking to expand into the same neighborhoods suffering from fossil fuel industry pollution.
● “Chemical Recycling” is a bad investment. “Chemical recycling”(aka plastic-to-fuel) is competing against, and losing to, virgin plastic production. High likelihood of technical failure has also squandered investment. As of 2017, similar technologies have wasted at least $2 billion of investments with canceled or failed projects across the globe.
Denise Patel, GAIA US/Canada Program Director, states, "Plastics are the new villain of the climate fight, and politicians can’t fall for industry’s claims that they have a silver bullet solution, especially when the evidence does not back up those claims. With the rising crises of climate change, pollution, and economic insecurity under the backdrop of a global pandemic, we have no more time or money to waste on dangerous tech-fixes. Decision-makers need to fight climate change and plastic pollution at the source, by pursuing policies that place limits on production and support zero waste systems.”
“Among other things, what's not being addressed is the high cost to municipalities to recover plastics currently in the waste stream and sort it at a recycling facility before it can even be sent to a chemical recycler,” added Alex Danovitch of Nothing Left to Waste. “If we want real solutions to eliminating plastics waste, this money could be better spent on building reusable and refillable infrastructure that brings economic development and jobs to our community.”
PennEnvironment is dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. For more information, visit www.PennEnvironment.org.