PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The plastics industry says there is a way to help solve the crisis of plastic waste plaguing the planet's oceans, beaches and lands— recycle it, chemically.
Chemical recycling typically uses heat or chemical solvents to break down plastics into liquid and gas to produce an oil-like mixture or basic chemicals. Industry leaders say that mixture can be made back into plastic pellets to make new products.
“What we are trying to do is really create a circular economy for plastics because we think it is the most viable option for keeping plastic out of the environment,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade association for American chemical companies.
ExxonMobil, New Hope Energy, Nexus Circular, Eastman, Encina and other companies are planning to build large plastics recycling plants. Seven smaller facilities across the United States already recycle plastic into new plastic, according to the ACC. A handful of others convert hard-to-recycle used plastics into alternative transportation fuels for aviation, marine and auto uses.
But environmental groups say advanced recycling is a distraction from real solutions like producing and using less plastic. They suspect the idea of recyclable plastics will enable the steep ramp up in plastic production to continue. And while the amount produced globally grows, recycling rates for plastic waste are abysmally low, especially in the United States.
Plastic packaging, multi-layered films, bags, polystyrene foam and other hard-to-recycle plastic products are piling up in landfills and in the environment, or going to incinerators.
Judith Enck, the founder and president of Beyond Plastics, says plastics recycling doesn't work and never will. Chemical additives and colorants used to give plastic different properties mean that there are thousands of types, she said. That’s why they can’t be mixed together and recycled in the conventional, mechanical way. Nor is there much of a market for recycled plastic, because virgin plastic is cheap, she said.
So what is more likely to happen than actual recycling, said Enck, a former regional administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is the industry will shift to burning plastics as waste or as fuel.
Lee Bell, a policy advisor for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, thinks chemical recycling is a public relations exercise by the petrochemical industry. The purpose is to dissuade regulators from capping plastics production. Making plastic could become even more important to the fossil fuel industry as climate change puts pressure on their transportation fuels, Bell said.
The industry has made roughly 11 billion metric tons of plastic since 1950, with half of that produced since 2006, according to industrial ecologist Roland Geyer. Global plastic production is expected to more than quadruple by 2050, according to the United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal in Norway.
The international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says the share of plastic waste that is successfully recycled is projected to rise to 17% in 2060 from 9% in 2019 if no additional policies are enacted to restrain plastic demand and enhance recycling, but that wouldn't begin to keep up with the projected growth in plastic waste. With more ambitious policies, the amount of plastic waste that is recycled could rise to 40% to 60%, according to OECD.
Two groups working to reduce plastic pollution, the Last Beach Clean Up and Beyond Plastics, estimated that the U.S. rate for recycling plastic waste in 2021 was even lower — 5% to 6%, after China stopped accepting other countries' waste in 2018.
The U.S. national recycling strategy says no option, including chemical recycling, should be ruled out. The way to think of these new plants, the industry says, is as manufacturing plants. They should be legally defined that way, and not as waste management. About 20 states have adopted laws in the past five years consistent with that wish. Opponents say it’s a way to skirt the more stringent environmental regulations that apply to waste management facilities.