“Chemical recycling” of plastic: a burning issue

Polina Tankilevich (Pexels)

This is a joint blog with Tessa Wardle, NRDC Spring 2022 Environmental Health Intern

The NRDC has conducted extensive research on “chemical recycling” facilities in the United States with evidence that they were operational or soon to become operational. What we discovered led us to conclude that “chemical recycling” is a dangerous false solution to the growing plastic waste crisis – and should not be considered recycling. Worse still, these so-called “chemical recycling” facilities generate hazardous waste and exacerbate environmental injustices under the guise of recycling.

We found that:

  • Most of these “chemical recycling” facilities do not produce or plan to produce new plastic, but perform some kind of plastic incineration, turning the plastic into dirty fuel using energy-intensive processes. This process of turning plastic into fuel offers none of the environmental and economic benefits of true recycling, which sends materials back into the production cycle.
  • A major concern is the volume of hazardous waste produced by these so-called “chemical recycling” facilities. One facility reported disposing of nearly 500,000 pounds of hazardous waste in 2019. Hazardous waste from “chemical recycling” facilities includes toxic substances, many of which are carcinogenic and/or neurotoxic. Much of this waste consists of benzene, a known carcinogen that can harm reproduction and fetal development.
  • Existing “chemical recycling” facilities are mostly located in communities with disproportionately low income, people of color, or both. These communities may be impacted by the hazardous waste and hazardous air pollutants generated by these facilities.
  • The toxic trail continues past the original ‘chemical recycling’ facility, as the hazardous waste was shipped to multiple locations across the country for disposal – and all waste disposal methods involved burning . This can be harmful to communities living near incineration facilities.

Where does combustion occur throughout plastic “chemical recycling”?

Public opinion of plastics is plummeting, and policymakers, including the EPA and the Department of Energy, should not encourage industry’s attempts to rehabilitate the ugly truth of its product. So-called “chemical recycling” is not a sustainable process that will save us from plastic waste. Instead, promoting “chemical recycling” serves the plastics industry, enabling continued and increased production of fossil fuel-based single-use plastic products that contain toxic additives, harm people and pollute our planet. .

Solving the problem of plastic waste is possible, but it requires real solutions, not turning plastic into fuel and burning it, with all the associated toxic pollution that entails. The real solutions include reducing plastic production – to stop the problem at the source – while innovating new non-toxic, reusable, renewable and recyclable materials to replace plastic derived from fossil fuels. This is where we should focus our energies and resources.

Tessa Wardle is a master’s student in environmental health science at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. His research interests include the intersection between science and policy, particularly as they relate 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 Occidental College in Urban and Environmental Policy, where she graduated magna cum laude.

Tessa Wardle