Chemical recycling is a dangerous distraction from desperately needed solutions to address the plastic pollution crisis we face across the globe. Michigan advocates are now working furiously to repeal the poor decision.
Chemical recycling, advanced recycling, or plastic-to-fuel technologies – these are the names the petrochemical industry deceptively uses for facilities where plastic waste is melted and boiled into either fuel or more plastic using chemicals and heat. We call these methods greenwashed incineration, burning plastic, and a false solution.
The technologies used in so-called chemical recycling – pyrolysis and gasification – release high volumes of air pollutants and produce large quantities of toxic chemicals. Until recently, these facilities were regulated as incinerators in Michigan and thus subjected to a stringent permitting process. But at the end of December 2022, Governor Whitmer signed a bill that included provisions to reclassify these facilities as manufacturing, thereby deregulating them.
The proposed bill package was initially a carefully negotiated set of changes to the state's solid waste laws to strengthen Michigan's recycling policy. But, unfortunately, at the eleventh hour, the petrochemical industry won provisions to deregulate the management of mixed plastic waste by greenlighting chemical recycling.
If you've never heard of chemical recycling, you may wonder why environmentalists are so distressed about the deregulation of plastic waste management. Here are a few critical points to understand:
- Chemical recycling is not recycling. While the petrochemical industry may falsely claim it is, this term is purposefully deceptive. Leading governments and organizations around the globe deliberately exclude these technologies in their definitions of recycling. Authentic recycling strategies aim to keep material in circulation nearly indefinitely to prevent the extraction of more natural resources. While chemical "recycling," specifically plastics-to-fuel technologies, may result in a one-time value gained from the plastic, the material is ultimately lost from the economy, which means new virgin materials are needed to produce more products.
- All chemical recycling is still in prototype. According to GAIA’s 2020 report, “All Talk and No Recycling: An Investigation of the U.S. Chemical Recycling Industry,” of the 37 plastic “chemical recycling'' facilities proposed since the early 2000s in the US, only three are currently operational, and none are successfully recovering plastic to produce new plastic. A notable example is the failed Renewology start-up in Boise, Idaho, which claimed to be able to turn residential post-consumer plastic into fuel but closed its doors less than a year later.
- Most chemical recycling facilities turn plastic waste into fuel. While the petrochemical industry claims chemical recycling facilities can turn plastics into either fuel or plastic, no United States facility has successfully converted plastic waste from residential collection into plastic at scale. Chemical recycling in its usual form of plastics-to-fuel is just an alternative method of burning plastic and a mandate for continued oil and gas extraction.
- Chemical recycling facilities produce massive amounts of hazardous waste and release toxic air pollutants. A 2022 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found a single chemical recycling facility produced half a million pounds of hazardous waste in one year, including benzene, lead, cadmium, and chromium, which were ultimately incinerated. Michigan desperately needs less toxic air pollutants, not more unregulated emissions.
- Most chemical recycling facilities have been sited in communities of color or low-income neighborhoods. The NRDC found six of the eight facilities researched for their report were located in Black or brown neighborhoods. Further, race is the most significant indicator of whether you’ll live near toxic waste in America. It's unacceptable to know the potential of these facilities to harm overburdened communities and allow their unchecked development regardless.
- Chemical recycling will not solve our plastics pollution problem. Like many states, Michigan needs robust recycling reform, but it should not come at the expense of community health and further environmental injustices. Most so-called chemical recycling facilities are a dangerous distraction from needed investments in proven reuse strategies, recycling policies, and infrastructure. Authentic recycling solutions have proven environmental, social, and economic benefits compared to the significant financial, health, and climate risks created by chemical recycling proposals.
- How we manage America’s plastic waste, including whether we “chemically recycle” it or cease production, impacts the globe. As the pitfalls of using traditional recycling methods for hard-to-recycle plastics have become increasingly evident and American plastic waste continues to turn up in rivers, oceans, garbage piles, and burn pits around the planet, the petrochemical industry has swiftly shifted its waste management tactics towards chemical recycling. They kicked off a nationwide lobbying campaign to deregulate chemical recycling across the US, including slipping in provisions duplicative of Michigan’s into well-intentioned recycling bill packages in many states. To date, 21 states have greenlit chemical recycling.
The oil and gas industry is also lobbying federal officials to no longer regulate chemical recycling facilities as incinerators under the Clean Air Act. America produces and consumes more plastic than any other country, and how we manage this crisis has global implications.
Due to plastic pollution, over-extraction, manufacturing, and unsustainable waste management practices, our freshwater is undrinkable, our wildlife is inedible, and our air, in many places, is unsafe to breathe. We no longer need scientists to tell us the Earth is in peril; most of America has already experienced the impacts of the climate crisis first-hand. There is a better solution that advocates have been promoting for years – reduce waste everywhere possible, reuse everything that we can, and recycle what’s left over. Anything without a non-toxic circular solution should no longer be produced.
Loopholes, Injustice, & the “Advanced Recycling” Myth from Just Zero
Recycling Lies: “Chemical Recycling” of Plastic Waste is Just Greenwashing Incineration from the Natural Resources Defense Council
Chemical Recycling: Distraction, Not Solution from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives
Chemical Recycling Will Not Solve Our Plastics Problem from the Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers