America’s petrochemical industry is pushing hard—and with considerable success—to have states reclassify the controversial “chemical recycling” of plastics as a manufacturing process to avoid environmental protection regulations that apply to waste disposal, says a new report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).
Spearheaded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the legislative push to loosen restrictions on chemical recycling already has significant traction, writes Grist. Since 2017, according to a new GAIA report, some 20 states “have passed bills to exempt chemical recycling facilities from waste management requirements—despite significant evidence that most facilities end up incinerating the plastic they receive.”
That means they’re manufacturing next to nothing from this plastic—aside from inferior quality fuels, along with huge volumes of known toxins. “A single chemical recycling facility in Oregon produces nearly half a million pounds of benzene, lead, cadmium, and other hazardous waste per year, along with hazardous air pollutants that can cause cancer and birth defects,” Grist writes, citing a recent investigation by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Chemical recycling is also an environmental justice nightmare. “Of the eight chemical recycling facilities currently operating in the U.S.,” the NRDC research found, “six are located near communities whose residents are disproportionately Black or brown.”
Of these eight, five are “primarily ‘plastic-to-fuel’ operations, two are turning plastic into chemical components whose end uses aren’t disclosed, and one claims to be turning carpet into nylon,” writes Grist.
That makes these chemical recycling facilities nothing more than “waste-to-toxic-oil plants, processing plastic to turn it into a subpar and polluting fuel,” states the report by Tok Oyewole, GAIA’s U.S. and Canada policy and research coordinator. It urges federal regulators to affirm chemical recycling as a waste management process in spite of the industry’s “misinformation” campaign.
Jed Thorp, state director for the Rhode Island chapter of Clean Water Action, traced his own state’s close call with a bill that would have exempted new chemical recycling facilities from waste management regulation. He told Grist that under the new bill, such facilities would not have been required to hold public hearings or disclose projected pollution levels.
Though the Rhode Island bill was rejected by the state House (after being passed by the Senate), Thorp expects to see it back again, with the ACC having “reinvent[ed] the whole argument and talking points… to be able to better sell it in the future.”
Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia have already bought what ACC is selling, Grist says, with laws now on the books that redefine waste to exclude chemical (also known as “advanced”) recycling.
And Big Petrochem lobbyists are pressing ahead, with similar legislation proposed in Alabama, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York.
They may yet encounter headwinds. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is some nine months into reviewing whether chemical recycling should be regulated under Section 129 of the Clean Air Act, a move that “would define chemical recycling processes as ‘incineration’ once and for all,” Grist writes, “potentially delivering a forceful blow to the petrochemical industry’s state-by-state legislative strategy.”
Citing Oyewole, Grist adds that the true force of that blow will depend on the EPA’s “determination [to] override existing state legislation.”