“Chemical Recycling” – A Summer of Disillusionment

By Tessa Wardle

What is “chemical recycling”?

As a student in public health, I was disappointed with the concept of “chemical recycling” of plastic (also known as advanced recycling, chemical conversion, molecular conversion, or conversion technologies). At first, I was excited to hear about a possible solution to the plastic waste crisis in the form of this seemingly miraculous technique that could breathe new life into hard-to-recycle plastics while contributing to a circular economy. It all sounded too good to be true, and after a few weeks of research I found it to be.

I have learned that the main form of “chemical recycling” that takes place in the United States is not recycling at all. Recycling itself recovers materials after use and returns them to the manufacturing cycle, where they are used to make new products, giving these materials another life in a circular economy. Processes such as “chemical recycling” typically use plastics to generate a limited amount of energy in a one-time process, destroying them rather than giving them another physical use. Pyrolysis and gasification of plastic are two processes that illustrate the error of the term “chemical recycling” because rather than recycling plastic waste into plastic products, these technologies typically turn plastic into fuel that will be burned, releasing gases. greenhouse and toxic pollution. The EPA is currently considering regulations for pyrolysis and gasification units under the Clean Air Act, which my research has found are badly needed.

Figure 1. Overview of mechanical recycling, the main form of recycling in the world, and new technologies referred to as “chemical recycling”. Opportunities for harmful emissions exist at several stages of every “chemical recycling” process. The main form of “chemical recycling” that occurs in the United States turns plastics into fuels that are burned. Image courtesy of Tessa Wardle.

Other forms of “chemical recycling” include solvent-based processes and chemical depolymerization. While some of these processes can result in actual recycling of materials (plastic to plastic), these processes are much less common than the practice of using plastics as fuel. Solvent-based processes and depolymerization are not without their own dangers. These processes attempt to separate the major plastic components from contaminants and additives. This is necessary because plastics contain a mixture of chemical additives that improve the material properties of the plastic, including texture, UV resistance, durability and many more. Recent research has uncovered thousands of previously unknown chemical additives in plastics, many of which are classified as substances of concern.

Toxic releases from “chemical recycling” of plastic

Given the number of chemicals of concern in plastic products, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that “chemical recycling” facilities emit toxic chemicals and hazardous air pollutants. The sources of these emissions are unknown, but can come from chemicals in plastics, chemical processing aids, chemicals produced during processing and / or combinations of all of these. I found permits for existing “chemical recycling” facilities in the United States, as well as facility-specific data from the EPA that paints a very different picture than the industry claims “low toxic releases” . In reality, “chemical recycling” facilities are licensed to release, or have recorded the release of, a mixture of highly toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes, dioxins, and so on. These data worried me because of the chemicals’ association with cancer, damage to the nervous system, reproductive and developmental effects, among other dangerous traits (Table). Knowing this, I worry about the communities directly adjacent to the “chemical recycling” facilities.

Toxic waste sent across the country

The communities directly neighboring these facilities are not the only ones for which the concern is relevant. According to EPA RCRA data, a “chemical recycling” plant operated by a company called Agilyx sent more than 500,000 pounds of hazardous waste across the country in 2019 (Figure 2). Agilyx transforms polystyrene foam using pyrolysis technologies.

Figure 2. Agilyx, a pyrolysis facility in Oregon, sends toxic waste across the country where it is ultimately burned. The size of the arrow corresponds approximately to the volume of waste sent. Data from the 2019 CJRR Biennial Report. Image courtesy of Tessa Wardle.

These hazardous wastes are mainly benzene, but include lead, barium, cadmium, chromium, vinyl chloride, etc. These chemicals are associated with health problems ranging from cancer and developmental toxicity to damage to several different organs (table). Techniques for removing these hazardous chemicals and heavy metals – including fuel mixing and incineration (with or without energy recovery) – ultimately lead to the combustion of the materials, where they can spread throughout the world. air and have an impact on neighboring communities. Since this facility only processes polystyrene waste, this raises the question of what additional by-products could be produced from facilities that process many different types of plastics.

Chart. Chemicals generated by “chemical recycling” facilities present hazardous health risks. (1) The health hazards of chemicals sent off-site as hazardous waste by Agilyx and (2) Hazardous Air Pollutants (PAHs) listed in Agilyx’s Air Toxic Emissions Inventory and air emission permits for Agilyx, Alterra Energy, Braven Environmental, Brightmark, Nexus Fuels, and PureCycle Technologies. California Safer Consumer Products Candidate Chemicals Hazard Characteristic Data. Image courtesy of Tessa Wardle.

Need real solutions

Overall, after doing a summer of research, I am deeply disappointed with the bogus ‘chemical recycling’ solution. The plastic problem begins long before it ends up littering the earth, which end-of-life solutions like “chemical recycling” do not solve. Burning plastics for fuel is just another form of fossil fuel, which harms the environment and our health. Many problems stem from the toxic nature of plastic itself, and the real solution is to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic and radically change our systems to focus on sustainable materials that can be recycled and reused over and over again. The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act provides a model for more appropriately addressing the plastic waste crisis we are currently facing and policymakers should not be fooled by the greenwashing of the plastics industry regarding the ” chemical recycling ”.

Tessa Wardle is an MSc student in Environmental Health Sciences at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. His research interests include the intersection of science and policy, particularly with regard to toxic chemicals. She has past research experience with NGOs that have focused on pesticides in California, urban oil drilling in Los Angeles, and drinking water contamination in the United States. She also holds a BA from the Occidental College in Urban and Environmental Policy, where she graduated with Distinction.

Originally published on the NRDC Expert Blog.

Related Story: EPA: Say No To Burning Plastic AKA “Chemical Recycling”

Featured photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

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