14 June 2018
Nairobi looks for new water to ease its growing thirst
As urban growth and climate change boost demand for water, Kenya's capital is searching for new sources.
The controversial practice looms large in state environmental laws, federal regulation and global plastic treaty negotiations.
With a presidential election looming, a wave of state-level legislation circulating, an international plastics treaty taking form and fights brewing over proposed facilities, 2024 is set to shape the regulatory future of chemical recycling in the U.S.
As of September 2023, the 11 constructed chemical recycling facilities in the country are capable of processing 459,280 tons of waste plastic each year, using pyrolysis and gasification to convert it into fuel or chemicals that can then be used to create new plastic, according to a report from Beyond Plastics and IPEN (the International Pollutants Elimination Network). At full capacity, those facilities can process about 1.3% of the country’s plastic waste, the report found. Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, told Environmental Health News (EHN) at least twice as many new facilities have been proposed, some of which haven’t yet advanced past a press release but all of which are emboldened by a flurry of state laws loosening regulations on the controversial practice.
In 2017, Florida became the first state in the country to exempt chemical recycling from solid waste regulations and ensure it would be regulated as manufacturing. The following year, Wisconsin and Georgia did the same, allowing facilities to skirt the environmental oversight of waste management plants while also opening them up to a larger universe of taxpayer subsidies, Enck said.
Twenty-four states have now passed similar legislation, according to the industry association American Chemistry Council, and bills are making the rounds in many more. Renee Sharp, strategic adviser for environmental health advocate Safer States, told EHN the environmental community was “caught flat-footed” by the spread of industry-backed laws that ease the development of new facilities. “We’ve been playing catch-up, but we’re catching up very fast,” she said.
A bill introduced in Maine last year was among the first state-level efforts to push back against the tide by declaring that “advanced recycling does not constitute recycling.” A failed Rhode Island bill, meanwhile, would have prohibited the construction of chemical recycling facilities. Peter Blair, policy and advocacy director for Just Zero, a waste-reduction advocate, said he expects that bill to be refiled this year and that more states will follow Maine’s lead.
Environmental advocates argue that advanced or chemical recycling is an insufficient answer to the plastics crisis that also pollutes neighboring communities. Enck called it “more of a marketing ploy than an actual solution to the problem.” She argues the “dismal” U.S. plastic recycling rate of 5% to 6% is a reason to reduce plastic production rather than supporting the status quo with chemical recycling.
Greenhouse gas emissions from plastic waste pyrolysis are also 10 to 100 times worse than those from the production of virgin plastic and the majority of output from the process comes in the form of process fuel, emissions and hazardous waste, the Beyond Plastics report found. Plastic additives that can be released during the chemical recycling process can “disrupt endocrine function and increase risk for male reproductive birth defects, infertility, obesity, cardiovascular disease, renal disease and cancers,” the report said.
Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), said states’ interest in clearing the path for chemical recycling reflects a desire to “bring new, innovative businesses to their state. They’re looking to see how they can recycle a lot of the plastics that right now aren’t.”
As the ACC promotes legislation that recognizes chemical recycling as manufacturing, states are beginning to contemplate extended producer responsibility laws, which require companies to account for the end-of-life environmental costs of their products in an effort to reduce packaging and increase recycling volume. California, Colorado, Maine and Oregon have passed this type of legislation, while a new Maryland law has committed the state to studying the practice. Each of the laws, though, functions differently, and the devil is in the details, advocates said — namely, whether chemical recycling is considered as an effective tool alongside mechanical recycling. The approved rules don’t explicitly contemplate chemical recycling but may leave the door open by failing to prohibit its inclusion.
“Bad [extended producer responsibility] is worse than nothing,” Sharp said, as it would “give legislators and the public the impression that they’ve done something when actually nothing has been done.”
Legislation proposed in New York clearly prohibits chemical recycling from being counted in extended producer responsibility calculations, putting it front and center in the legislative battle, Enck said. She previously described the bill as “the most important environmental bill of the decade.”
Beyond these laws, federal regulations and requirements, global plastic treaty negotiations and community-level opposition will help shape the future of chemical recycling over the coming year, environmental advocates said.
With a growing number of states welcoming chemical recycling, Enck said at least 30 additional facilities have been proposed. Most notable among them are plants proposed in eastern Ohio and central Pennsylvania — two states among the 24 that consider chemical recycling as manufacturing — that have both drawn significant pushback.
SOBE Thermal Energy Systems has been planning to build a facility in Youngstown, Ohio, that would process discarded tires, plastic waste and used electronics. But Youngstown City Council established in December a one-year moratorium on pyrolysis and gasification plants, giving the community “time to catch their breath” and better understand the project’s potential impacts, Enck said. It was the first such moratorium passed in the country.
Meanwhile, in Point Township, Pennsylvania, Texas-based Encina hit a snag in its proposal to build a $1.1 billion plant that would operate at an unprecedented scale. Encina is eyeing a location along the Susquehanna River for a facility that would process 450,000 tons of plastic each year — as much as the country’s entire current capacity. But the company, which has faced opposition from environmental advocates and the local group Save Our Susquehanna, withdrew in October a key permit application after the state Department of Environmental Protection deemed portions of its plan “wholly inadequate,” delaying the project.
“Encina has become a model for how communities can raise their voices, speak up and let folks know about the concerns of a project,” Sage Lincoln, a legal fellow with the Clean Air Council, which previously brought a legal challenge to the facility’s development, told EHN. “You’re seeing the results of that in the close look regulators are taking at this project to make sure community concerns are addressed.”
The plastics industry is also promoting the inclusion of chemical recycling and the purchase of "recycling credits" – akin to carbon offsets – in calculations for a product’s recycled content.
Credit: Vivianne Lemay/Unsplash
At the federal level, the coming year could help dictate the future of chemical recycling, especially with the likelihood of increased rulemaking ahead of a possible administration change. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) withdrew a proposal by the Trump administration that relaxed clean-air regulations on chemical recycling facilities, but with so many states now operating with similar policies there may be more federal rulemaking to come. EPA press secretary Remmington Belford said the regulation of such facilities is “complex and based on a variety of legal and technical considerations.”
Environmental advocates are watching two areas in particular: the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides and the EPA’s approach to “mass balance,” a method for calculating a product’s recycled content. The Green Guides — the federal standards that govern environmental marketing claims — are due for revision this year, and industry groups, like the American Chemistry Council, have pushed to have them endorse chemical recycling, Blair said.
“If it includes language supporting advanced recycling, that will be a big sign of where things are going,” he added.
The plastics industry is also promoting the inclusion of chemical recycling and the purchase of "recycling credits" – akin to carbon offsets – in calculations for a product’s recycled content. Known as “mass balance,” this approach could find its way into both state legislation and federal regulations, Sharp said, putting a spotlight on any rules coming from the EPA.
Asked whether chemical recycling is part of an environmentally sound approach to the plastics crisis, EPA’s Belford said, “many approaches are needed to address the issues that plastics present. There are many concerns with chemical or thermoplastic processes that would need to be addressed.”
The question arising from ongoing Global Plastic Treaty negotiations is whether the treaty will serve as an “enabler” of chemical recycling.
Credit: UNEP/Ahmed Nayim Yussuf
In the background of discussions about U.S. policy, negotiators from around the world are developing a global plastics treaty that would address the ongoing crisis. Chemical recycling hasn’t been addressed directly and is not specifically mentioned in the 70-page draft of the treaty that exists, according to Vito Buonsante, policy lead at the negotiations for IPEN, a network that supports civil society organizations in low- and middle-income countries. Nonetheless, he told EHN, “chemical recycling is always present there.”
The question arising from negotiations is whether the treaty will serve as an “enabler” of chemical recycling, Buonsante said, by considering it alongside mechanical recycling in extended producer responsibility and recycled content policies. The final treaty, which Buonsante said is unlikely to be ready by early 2025 (as planned), could define what is considered “environmentally-sound management” for plastics. If it does, that could open the door for the inclusion of chemical recycling, but agreement on the issue has been hard to come by. A spokesperson for the ACC said last year’s Basel Convention on hazardous waste left open a section of guidelines on chemical recycling because the parties couldn’t reach consensus.
Environmental advocates said the U.S. hasn’t been ambitious enough at global treaty negotiations. Belford, the EPA spokesperson, said the U.S. approach to the treaty is “to be as ambitious as possible to protect human health and the environment. As a general matter, the U.S. also endeavors to align international goals with our domestic approaches to ensure that our commitments are implementable.”
The next session of negotiations is set to be held in Ottawa in late April.
Sharp said she and other environmental advocates are encouraged by a growing pushback against chemical recycling at the state level and by the emergence of legislative support at the federal level. As those domestic battles continue, the global negotiations could set the tone for the regulation of chemical recycling in the U.S. and beyond.
“We see this as an opportunity for the Biden administration to show their leadership on climate and the environment,” Sharp said. “We have seen some shifts in their positions toward a more pro-environment position and we’re hopeful we’ll see more.”
CAMERON PARISH, La. — Late into the night, John Allaire watches the facility next to his home shoot 300-foot flares from stacks.
He lives within eyesight of southwest Louisiana’s salty shores, where, for decades, he’s witnessed nearly 200 feet of land between it and his property line disappear into the sea. Two-thirds of the land was rebuilt to aid the oil and gas industry’s LNG expansion. LNG — shorthand for liquified natural gas – is natural gas that's cooled to liquid form for easier storage or transport; it equates to 1/600th the volume of natural gas in a gaseous state. It’s used to generate electricity, or fuel stove tops and home heaters, and in industrial processes like manufacturing fertilizer.
In the U.S., at least 30 new LNG terminal facilities have been constructed or proposed since 2016, according to the Oil and Gas Watch project. Louisiana and Texas’ Gulf Coast, where five facilities are already operating, will host roughly two-thirds of the new LNG terminals – meaning at least 22 Gulf Coast LNG facilities are currently under construction, were recently approved to break ground or are under further regulatory review.
Although the U.S. didn’t ship LNG until 2016, when a freight tanker left, a few miles from where Cameron Parish’s LNG plants are today, last year the country became the global leader in LNG production and export volume, leapfrogging exporters like Qatar and Australia. The EIA’s most recent annual outlook estimated that between the current year and 2050, U.S. LNG exports will increase by 152%.
And it’s changed local economic estimates: last year, retired Louisiana State University professor Loren Scott’s economic forecast last year predicted an additional $36 billion in oil and gas industry spending will boost local employment by 7% over just two years.
Allaire, 68, watches how saltwater collects where rainwater once fed the area’s diminishing coastal wetlands. “We still come down here with the kids and set out the fishing rods. It's not as nice as it used to be,” he told Environmental Health News (EHN).
That intimacy with nature drew Allaire to the area when he purchased 311 acres in 1998. An environmental engineer and 30-year oil and gas industry veteran, he helped lead environmental assessments and manage clean-ups, and although retired, he still works part-time as an environmental consultant with major petroleum companies. With a lifetime of oil and gas industry expertise, he’s watched the industry's footprint spread across Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico’s fragile shores and beyond. Now that the footprints are at the edge of his backyard, Allaire is among a cohort of organizers, residents and fisher-folk in the region mobilizing to stop LNG facility construction. For him, the industry’s expansion usurps the right-or-wrong ethics he carried across his consulting career. For anglers, oil and gas infrastructure has destroyed fishing grounds and prevented smaller vessels from accessing the seafood-rich waters of the Calcasieu River.
From the view of Allaire’s white pickup truck as he drives across his property to the ocean’s shore, he points to where a new LNG facility will replace marshlands. Commonwealth LNG intends to clear the land of trees and then backfill the remaining low-lying field.
“You see what’s happening with the environment,” Allaire said. “When the facts change, I got to change my mind about what we’re doing.”
John Allaire, left, purchased 311 acres in Cameron Parish in 1998, and has watched the oil and gas industry's footprint spread to his property.
Credit: John Allaire
During an Earth Day rally in April, community members gathered in the urban center of Lake Charles to demand local oil and gas industries help deliver a safer, healthier future for all. In between live acts by artists performing south Louisiana’s quintessential zydeco musical style, speakers like James Hiatt, a Calcasieu Parish native with ties to Cameron Parish and a Healthy Gulf organizer, and RISE St. James organizer Sharon Lavigne, who’s fighting against LNG development in rural Plaquemines Parish near the city of New Orleans, asked the nearly 100 in attendance to imagine a day in which the skyline isn’t dotted by oil and gas infrastructure.
Not long ago, it was hard to imagine an Earth Day rally in southwest Louisiana at all. For decades, the area has been decorated with fossil fuel infrastructure. Sunsets on some days are highlighted by the chemicals in the air; at night, thousands of facilities’ lights dot the dark sky.
“It takes a lot of balls for people to start speaking up,” Shreyas Vasudevan, a campaign researcher with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, told EHN in the days after the rally. In a region with its history and economy intertwined with oil and gas production, “you can get a lot of social criticism – or ostracization, as well – even threats to your life.”
Many are involved in local, regional and national advocacy groups, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Healthy Gulf, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Audubon Society.
But environmental organizers are fighting a multi-billion-dollar industry with federal and state winds at its back. And LNG’s federal support is coupled with existing state initiatives.
Under outgoing Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards — a term-limited Democrat — the state pledged a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. Natural gas, which the LNG industry markets as a cleaner-burning alternative, is cited as one of the state’s solutions. Louisiana is the only state that produces a majority of its carbon emissions through fossil fuels refining industries, like LNG, rather than energy production or transportation. Governor Edwards’ office did not return EHN’s request for comment.
This accommodating attitude towards oil and gas industries has resulted in a workforce that’s trained to work in LNG refining facilities across much of the rural Gulf region, said Steven Miles, a lawyer at Baker Botts LLP and a fellow at the Baker Institute’s Center on Energy Studies. Simultaneously, anti-industrialization pushback is lacking. It’s good news for industries like LNG.
“The bad news,” Miles added. “[LNG facilities] are all being jammed in the same areas.”
One rallying cry for opponents is local health. The Environmental Integrity Project found that LNG export terminals emit chemicals like carbon monoxide –potentially deadly– and sulfur dioxide, of which the American Lung Association says long-term exposure can lead to heart disease, cancer, and damage to internal or female reproductive organs.
An analysis of emissions monitoring reports by the advocacy group the Louisiana Bucket Brigade found that Venture Global’s existing Calcasieu Pass facility had more than 2,000 permit violations.That includes exceeding the permit’s authorized air emissions limit to release nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds 286 out of its first 343 days of operation.
The Marvel Crane, the first liquid natural gas carrier to transport natural gas from the Southwest Louisiana LNG facility, transits a channel in Hackberry, Louisiana, May 28, 2019.
Credit: Coast Guard News
Rather than amend its infrastructure to meet regulatory standards, Venture Global is asking the state to raise its facility’s air emissions permit limits to release an additional 833% of greenhouses gasses each year, according to the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s January report. If approved, permitted emissions would rise to roughly 4.65 million tons, making the facility the state’s fifth-largest emitter), according to a 2021 statewide greenhouse data inventory compiled by Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies.
“This is just one facility,” at a time when three more facilities have been proposed in the region and state, Vasudevan said. Venture Global’s operational LNG facility — also known as Calcasieu Pass — “is much smaller than the other facility they’ve proposed.”
In an area that experienced 18 feet of storm surge during Hurricane Laura in 2020 — and just weeks later, struck by Hurricane Delta — Venture Global is planning to build a second export terminal Known as “CP2,” it’s the largest of the roughly two dozen proposed Gulf LNG export terminals, and a key focal point for the region’s local organizing effort.
Residents “don’t really want LNG as much as they want Cameron [Parish] from 1990 back,” Hiatt told EHN of locals’ nostalgia for a community before storms like Rita in 2005 brought up to 15 feet of storm surge, only for Laura to repeat the damage in 2020. Throughout that time, the parish’s population dipped from roughly 10,000 to 5,000. “But the wolf knocking at the door is LNG. Folks in Cameron think that's going to bring back community, bring back the schools, bring back this time before we had all these storms — when Cameron was pretty prosperous.”
“Clearly,” for the oil and gas industry, “the idea is to transform what was once the center of commercial fishing in Louisiana to gas exports,” Cindy Robertson, an environmental activist in southwest Louisiana, told EHN.
Helping fishers’ impacted by LNG is about “actual survival of this unique culture,” Cooke said.
In a measure of organizers’ success, she pointed to a recent permit hearing for Venture Global’s CP2 proposal. Regionally, it’s the only project that’s received an environmental permit, but not its export permit, which remains under federal review. At the meeting, some spoke on the company’s behalf. As an organizer, it was a moment of clarity, Cooke explained. Venture Global officials “had obviously done a lot of coaching and organizing and getting people together in Cameron to speak out on their behalf,” Cooke said. “So, in a way, that was bad. But in another way, it shows that we really had an impact.”
“It also shows that we have a lot to do,” Cooke added.
Environmental organizers like Alyssa Portaro describe a sense of fortitude among activists — she and her husband to the region’s nearby town of Vinton near the Texas-Louisiana border. Since the families’ relocation to their farm, Portaro has worked with Cameron Parish fisher-folk.
“I’ve not witnessed ‘community’ anywhere like there is in Louisiana,” Portaro told EHN. But a New Jersey native, she understands the toll environmental pollution has on low-income communities. “This environment, it’s so at risk — and it’s currently getting sacrificed to big industries.”
“People don’t know what we’d do without oil and gas. It comes at a big price,” she added.
Southwest Louisiana’s Cameron Parish is one of the state’s most rural localities. Marine economies were the area’s economic drivers until natural disasters and LNG facilities began pushing locals out, commercial fishers claim.
Credit: Xander Peters for Environmental Health News
Residents “don’t really want LNG as much as they want Cameron [Parish] from 1990 back,” James Hiatt , a Healthy Gulf organizer, told EHN. "But the wolf knocking at the door is LNG."
Credit: Xander Peters for Environmental Health News
For the most part, Cameron Parish’s life and economy has historically taken place at sea. As new LNG facilities are operational or in planning locally, locals claim the community they once knew is nearly unrecognizable.
Credit: Xander Peters for Environmental Health News
The stakes are seemingly higher for a region like southwest Louisiana, which is the epicenter of climate change impacts.
In nearly a century, the state has lost roughly 2,000 square miles of land to coastal erosion. In part driving the state’s erosion crisis is the compounding impacts of Mississippi River infrastructure and oil and gas industry activity, such as dredging canals for shipping purposes, according to a March study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority said Cameron Parish could lose more land than other coastal parishes over the next 50 years. A recent Climate Central report says the parish will be underwater within that time frame.
On top of erosion and sea level rise impacts, in August, 2023, marshland across southwest Louisiana’s Cameron Parish burned. The fires were among at least 600 across the Bayou State this year. Statewide, roughly 60,000 acres burned — a more than six-fold increase of the state’s average acres burned per year in the past decade alone.
But while the blaze avoided coastal Louisiana communities like Cameron Parish, the fires represented a warning coming from a growing chorus of locals across the region — one that’s echoes by the local commercial fishing population, who claimed to have experienced unusually low yields during the same time, according to a statement from a local environmental group. At the site of the Cameron Parish fires are locations for two proposed LNG expansion projects.
It was an unusual occurrence for an area that’s more often itself underwater this time of year due to a storm surge from powerful storms. For LNG expansion’s local opposition, it was a red flag.
As the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has noted prior, the confluence of climate change’s raising of sea levels and the construction of LNG export terminals — some are proposed at the size of nearly 700 football fields — are wiping away the marshland folks like Allaire watched wither. Among their fears is that the future facilities won’t be able to withstand the power of another storm like Laura and its storm surge, which wiped away entire communities in 2020.
Amidst these regional climate impacts, LNG infrastructure has shown potential to exacerbate the accumulation of greenhouse gasses that cause global warming. For the most part, LNG is made up of methane — a greenhouse gas that’s more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Among the 22 current LNG facility proposals, the advocacy group Sierra Club described a combined climate pollution output that would roughly equal to that of about 440 coal plants.
The climate impacts prompt some of the LNG industry’s uncertainty going forward. It isn’t clear if Asian countries, key importers of U.S. LNG, will “embrace these energy transition issues,” said David Dismuke, an energy consultant and the former executive director of Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies. Likewise, European nations remain skeptical of embracing LNG as a future staple fuel source.
“They really don't want to have to pull the trigger,” Dismukes added, referring to Europe’s hesitation to commit more resources to exporting LNG from the American market. “They don't want to go down that road.”
While there will be a tapering down of natural gas supply, Miles explained, “we’re going to need natural gas for a long time,” as larger battery storage for renewables is still unavailable.
“I'm not one of these futurists that can tell you where we're going to be, but I just don't see everything being extreme,” Dismukes said. “I don't see what we've already built getting stranded and going away, either.”
For now, LNG seems here to stay. From 2012 to 2022,U.S. natural gas demand — the sum of both domestic consumption and gross exports — rose by a whopping 43%, reported the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA. Meanwhile, in oil and gas hotbeds like Louisiana and Texas, natural gas demand grew by 116%.
Throughout 25 years, Allaire has witnessed southwest Louisiana’s land slowly fade, in part driven by the same industrial spread regionally. Near where the front door of his travel trailer sits underneath the aluminum awning, he points to a chenier ridge located near the end of the property. It’s disappearing, he said.
“See the sand washing over, in here?” Allaire says, as he points towards the stretches of his property. “This pond used to go down for a half mile. This is all that's left of it on this side.”
Some funding for this reporting was also provided by the Wake Forest University Environmental and Epistemic Justice Initiative.
But industry players and proponents are now pushing for “chemical recycling”, claiming it could be an effective way to keep plastic waste out of landfills and oceans.
Here’s everything you know to know about the practice.
Chemical recycling is a set of technological processes that have been around for decades. There are three broad methods used in chemical recycling:
The crude oil — also called syngas — created from conversion can be refined into diesel fuel, gasoline and other products. When polymers are broken down and collected, they can theoretically be used to create new plastic products.
When polymers are broken down and collected, they can theoretically be used to create new plastic products. Above: Pure PET monomer, the most commonly used plastic polymer in the world, left, made from mixed/dirty post-consumer waste, right.
Credit: IBM Research/flickr
“Chemical recycling is really an industry ploy to convince the public and policymakers that we don't have to reduce plastic production in order to deal with plastic waste,” Jennifer Congdon, deputy director of the environmental advocacy group Beyond Plastics, told Environmental Health News (EHN).
The phrase “chemical recycling” suggests that these processes can result in new plastic products made from old plastic. But most of the plastic waste that goes through chemical recycling fails to become anything usable, Congdon said. In a 2023 report, Beyond Plastics, in collaboration with the International Pollutants Elimination Network, wrote that when using pyrolysis, only 20 to 30 percent of plastic waste input becomes extractable polymers. This means that “up to 80 percent of the plastic waste going in for recycling is actually lost as process fuel, emissions or becomes hazardous waste,” the report says.
Another report from the Natural Resources Defense Council calls chemical recycling the plastic industry’s attempt at “greenwashing incineration.” Burning synthetic oil or syngas that come out of chemical recycling is essentially just another, complicated way to burn fossil fuels. Chemical recycling processes are energy-intensive, emit greenhouse gasses and toxic pollutants, but “offers none of the ecological or economic benefits of true recycling,” the report says.
“The thinking that we can continue to use plastics at the rate that we're using them, and then deal with the waste by turning it into fuel and then burning it, is really collective madness,” said Congdon. “This stuff is so dirty and so toxic. It's not a solution.”
The pollution and health concerns that come with chemical recycling are essentially the same as those that come with plastic production. Chemical recycling facilities also emit toxic pollutants like benzene, toluene, dioxins, heavy metals and PFAS—all of which have been linked to serious health concerns like cancer, hormonal disruption and reproductive and developmental damage. Subproducts of plastic recycling, like plastics-based jet fuel, have also been linked to cancer in as many as one in every four people with a lifetime exposure, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The plants also produce non-trivial volumes of hazardous or corrosive waste.
The Beyond Plastics report states that in 2019, a chemical recycling plant in Oregon sent data to the EPA showing that it incinerated 283 tons of hazardous waste. This same facility produces one ton of hazardous waste for every three tons of plastic waste that they process.
When you factor all this together, it’s actually safer for the environment to landfill plastics than it is to chemically recycle them, Congdon said. So despite the enormous and unwieldy amounts of plastic waste out there (and more being generated all the time) chemical recycling is not the answer. “We really have to focus on reduction strategies” and lower the amount of plastic being produced, she said.
As of September 2023, there are 11 chemical recycling facilities in the United States, according to the 2023 Beyond Plastics report. Oregon, Nevada, New Hampshire, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia each have one chemical recycling plant. Texas and Ohio have two each.
Chemical recycling facilities in the U.S., like other plastics plants, are mostly located in low income communities and communities of color, said Congdon. “This is absolutely an environmental justice concern.”
In their 2023 report, Beyond Plastics analyzed the five-mile ring of land around 11 chemical recycling plants. They found that “eight of the plants are located in areas with lower-than-average levels of income, compared to the national average; and five have higher-than-average concentrations of people of color than the rest of the country.”
Interestingly, many of the factories “are not operating or not operating at capacity,” Congdon said. Even so, “the industry is looking to build more of them.” But even if they were operating at full capacity, these facilities would be processing a very small percentage of our annually produced plastic waste, while generating a lot of hazardous waste, she added.
BASF employee with a bottle of pyrolysis oil recovered from plastic waste.
Proponents of chemical recycling point to the possibility of a more “circular economy”, describing a world where more and more plastic waste is funneled continually into new products.
Industry leaders say the practice will help fix the problem of plastic waste — most of which cannot be recycled mechanically.
But while the industry tries to frame chemical recycling as a way to extend the life of plastics, “we reject that and do not believe it is a tool that should be in any proverbial toolbox,” Daniel Rosenberg, senior attorney and director of federal toxics policy at NRDC, told EHN.
“The American Chemistry Council has also been working to get chemical recycling reclassified as manufacturing instead of as waste processing” on a federal level, Congdon said. This move would weaken the scrutiny for its hazardous emissions and waste.
Its recent petition to the EPA for this reclassification got rejected, she added—rightly so, since these facilities often can’t prove that they’re actually creating a valuable product for the market. But had that petition been successful, the plastics industry would suddenly be eligible for a number of subsidies and incentives that could have led to a surge of chemical recycling.
The EPA ruled last year that chemical recycling processes need to be regulated under the Clean Air Act. However, prior to that ruling, 24 states have already passed individual laws reclassifying chemical recycling processes as manufacturing. What remains to be seen is whether the EPA will step in and tell those states that they must regulate chemical recycling as waste processing as part of a national standard, Congdon said.
The ability for industry players to go full steam on chemical recycling depends on them being able to get out from under federal pollution controls, Rosenberg said. This includes “monitoring their emissions, reporting their emissions, limiting their emissions, restrictions on how they dispose of waste.” All of this should be seen as evidence that “these proposals are not actually good for public health or the environment, particularly for environmental justice communities.”Several lawmakers do seem to recognize and understand the pitfalls of the practice. In July of 2023, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee wrote in a report that it “encourages” the EPA to maintain regulating chemical recycling technologies as municipal waste combustion units under the Clean Air Act.
The Global Plastics Treaty is part of a resolution by the United Nations Environment Programme to develop an international and legally-binding agreement to end plastic pollution. Ideally, the treaty would force plastic manufacturers to address the full life cycle of plastic, from its production to its disposal. The next session will be held in Ottawa in April.
Some experts fear that chemical recycling ends up being incentivized in the treaty. A coalition of Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Cuba, China and Bahrain are pushing to focus on plastic waste rather than production limits. But promoting chemical recycling “would be the worst outcome the Treaty could endorse for managing plastic waste,” wrote 20 scientists in November of 2023.
Many unknowns remain regarding the stance the U.S. government will take in global negotiations about plastics, Rosenberg says. Whether we’ll start to see plastic production caps, for example, is still up in the air. Groups like NRDC are also looking to see whether the EPA will roll back its prior approvals for some toxic chemicals derived from plastic waste as per the Toxic Substances Control Act. All of this is consequential for how chemical recycling will be regulated in the U.S.
None of these are currently set in stone, said Rosenberg, but it will be significant to see what position the U.S. takes.
The opening press conference for the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting on the global plastic treaty held in Nairobi, Kenya in 2023.
Various organizations have a number of reports and fact-sheets where you can learn more about chemical recycling.
And follow Environmental Health News’ continuing coverage of chemical recycling and plastics here:
Sign up for our free daily newsletter, Above the Fold, featuring the most consequential news on our environment and health.
As the Smokehouse Creek fire rages on, Texas grapples with the escalating wildfire risks fueled by climate change, posing significant challenges to property insurance and homeowner costs.
"There were clear fire seasons for Texas in the past, but fires have become a year-round threat."
— Yongqiang Liu, meteorologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station
Why this matters:
The increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires in Texas threaten lives and property and signal a broader trend of growing environmental challenges. These changes impact the insurance industry, prompting higher costs for homeowners and highlighting the urgent need for policy and climate action to mitigate risks and protect communities. The impacts of wildfires are more far-reaching than you may realize.
A new bill has been passed to secure the future of a coal-fired power plant in Utah.
"To achieve energy security, colleagues, we must protect Utah's energy resources, our independence, and our infrastructure,"
— Rep. Carl Albrecht, House sponsor of the bill
Why this matters:
The decision to keep the coal plant operational contributes to Utah's energy security during a transitional period. However, it poses significant questions about environmental sustainability and economic impact on local communities, highlighting the tension between maintaining traditional energy sources and moving toward cleaner alternatives.
Cities in the United States have the untapped potential to capture a significant amount of stormwater, which could lead to more sustainable water resource management.
"There really is no reason why stormwater capture shouldn't be up there on the list of water sources for all communities in the country that are looking to secure their long-term supplies."
— Bruk Berhanu, senior researcher at the Pacific Institute
Why this matters:
Effective stormwater management is pivotal for health outcomes, as it ensures a resilient water supply amidst intensifying droughts and floods due to climate change, and plays a crucial role in urban sustainability.
A new report criticizes Canadian pension funds for inadequate responses to the financial risks posed by climate change, demanding more proactive measures.
"The risks of a warming world are considerable Failing to have a credible and ambitious climate plan is a recipe for underperformance in the years to come."
— Adam Scott, executive director of Shift Action
Why this matters:
Pension funds play a vital role in shaping the future economy, influencing the health outcomes of the public and the environmental sustainability of the nation. The direction taken by these funds can significantly impact both immediate and long-term public health and environmental resilience.
Algoma Steel continues to exceed Canada’s standard air pollution limits for cancer-causing compounds and struggles with spills as it pushes toward a “green” makeover.
New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.
Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.