Advocacy group questions plastic chemical recycling efficacy

Alliance of environmental groups calls conversion of plastic scrap to fuel a “greenwashing scheme.”

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August 5, 2020

A Berkeley, California based organization called the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) says elected officials should be wary of turning to processes labeled as chemical recycling or advanced recycling as ways to boost the recycling rate of discarded plastic.

GAIA also questions the financial viability of the practice, repeating allegations it had made in a technical report released in June.

The organization says its new 40-page report “reveals that what industry in the United States calls ‘advanced recycling’ is largely the opposite— turning plastic into fuel to be burned.” GAIA consists of advocacy groups from around the world, including 14 regional organizations in the U.S. and Canada.

The group says the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on the Climate Crisis should reconsider its endorsement of the process in its recently published “Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan For a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America” document.

GAIA says its research indicates, “out of the 37 [chemical recycling] facilities proposed in the U.S. since 2000, only three are currently operational, and none have been proven to successfully recover plastic to make new plastics on a commercial scale.” The group also claims “a technical assessment of chemical recycling [found] the technology to be polluting, carbon-intensive and riddled with system failures, disqualifying it as a solution to the escalating plastic problem, especially at the scale needed.”

“This technology has not worked in the past, cannot survive without significant taxpayer subsidies, creates few jobs, and brushes aside the serious climate change and air toxics issues associated with plastic production,” says Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator. “We urge the authors of the House report to remove the chemical recycling recommendation if they are serious about addressing climate change.” 

The Washington-based American Chemistry Council (ACC) has been an advocate for chemical recycling processes and has founded the Advanced Recycling Alliance for Plastics to “grow awareness of the benefits of advanced plastics recycling technologies that convert post-use plastics into chemicals, fuels and other products.”

ACC’s position on advanced or chemical recycling includes a statement that “advanced recycling can contribute significantly to a circular economy in which plastics are repurposed rather than disposed, which helps keep plastics out of the ocean/environment and harnesses their inherent value to create valuable new products. For example, making ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel from used plastics could decrease the consumption of water by 58 percent and the use of traditional energy sources by 96 percent, according to a 2017 study from Argonne National Laboratory.”