Chemical recycling may be a scam, according to research done by a major environmental group.
Chemical recycling is a relatively new method popularized by industry groups as recycling exportation breaks down. It’s a process where plastic is treated with compounds that reduce it back to monomers, which can then be made into new polymers and therefore new plastics. It’s said to be more efficient and productive than mechanical recycling, which chops up plastic into pellets and uses heat to make them into new products, at a drop in quality.
The United States consumes and therefore discards a disproportionate amount of the world’s plastic waste, but recycles less than 9 percent of that. We do need more efficient recycling methods and programs. But this may not yet be it.
Research done by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a 50-year-old non-profit which monitors industrial progress, indicates that most companies touting chemical recycling are only ‘greenwashing,’ using the term to try to seem more environmentally friendly than they are.
Of the hundreds of announced chemical recycling plants, the NRDC could only find eight that are currently operating or about to be. Of these eight, five are using plastics to make low-grade fuel, two were converting plastics to chemical components, and one was turning carpets into nylon. By definition, only the last of these is recycling at all.
One plant, a plastics-to-chemicals plant in Oregon run by the company Agilyx, is turning waste polystyrene into styrene, which could be made into new polystyrene, the building block of most protective package and single-use products. But as their process makes low-quality styrene, they’re instead selling their product to be burned for fuel, a dirty process. Official figures from the plant show that it generated nearly 500,000 pounds of hazardous waste (mostly the styrene) in 2019 alone.
The other significant finding of NRDC’s study is that 6 of those 8 working facilitates are situated in communities that are majority-POC and low income, contributing to the concentration of pollution in underserved communities.