States facing a mounting volume of plastic are turning to a recycling method that uses heat and chemicals to break down materials, even as critics say the process could do more harm than good to the environment.
Less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled in the US each year, and the other 90% ends up in landfills, incinerators, or the environment—leaving lawmakers and industries seeking solutions to tackle the plastic pollution crisis.
Twenty states in the last five years have passed chemical, or advanced, recycling legislation, which relieves companies of burdensome regulations by treating the recycling technology as a manufacturing operation rather than as solid waste disposal.
Advanced recycling advocates say the process is a step toward a circular economy, a system that reuses existing products to minimize the amount of end-of-life waste. The process is seen as the best available path to divert waste from landfills.
“Fewer plastic in landfills is a good thing, and I commend the legislature for supporting this commonsense environmental initiative,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said in June after state lawmakers passed an advanced recycling measure (SB 367).
But environmentalists question the energy usage and toxic emissions involved in the process and argue that recycling alone won’t tackle the 242 million metric tons of global plastic waste generated each year.
“The real solution we need to look at is to make less plastic,” said Veena Singla, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need to make less of these unnecessary and hard-to-recycle plastics, like single-use plastics, and move to material that truly can be recycled.”
The legislation passed in the states relieves chemical recycling facilities from solid waste management regulations. A facility designated as a manufacturer receives less regulation and more economic advantages, such as government financial incentives.
Chemical recycling includes a suite of technologies that use non-mechanical processes to create new plastic products or fuel. Most processes are done using pyrolysis or gasification, both operations that use high temperatures to either thermally degrade or steam plastic.
“You have to use a lot of heat and energy to drive these processes,” said Lee Bell, a policy adviser with the International Pollutants Elimination Network. “They have a very large carbon footprint, and at the end of the day, you have a massive hazardous waste stream and a very small amount of useful products.”
According to IPEN, a coalition of groups advocating for chemicals and waste policy changes, many plastics include chemical additives such as POP—persistent organic pollutants—UV stabilizers, and plasticizers, which can lead to a hazardous waste stream if incinerated using the advanced recycling process .
Advanced recycling also contributes to climate change, according to Beyond Plastics. The activist group found that the domestic plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
But advocates of the process tout the benefits of reuse as opposed to the destruction of plastic.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association for chemical companies, said it supports manufacturing regulation because “facilities receive plastics feedstock as a raw material and manufacture it into a higher value commodity in processes that do not involve incineration.”
“We think there’s real opportunities for the federal government, for Congress, to take some of the work that’s been done and make sure that the entire US has the appropriate legal and regulatory framework for these technologies,” said Craig Cookson, the American Chemistry Council’s senior director of plastics sustainability.
Texas—home to refineries, chemical plants, and an advanced recycling facility—was one of the first to pass advanced recycling legislation.
A large-scale facility is set to begin operations by the end of the year, with a capacity to recycle 30,000 metric tons of plastic waste per year. ExxonMobil also plans to increase capacity to 500,000 metric tons, or approximately 1 billion pounds by the end of 2026, across multiple sites globally.
Julie King, ExxonMobil operations media manager, said ExxonMobil shares concerns about plastic waste in the environment, and that “it’s taking action by helping in the development of materials that are easier for society to recycle.”
The company still plans to spread its operations and be a model to other cities.
“We are working together with government, waste management companies and petrochemical manufacturers to expand access to recycling programs in the city of Houston, helping to create a recycling hub that could serve as a model for other cities,” King said.
The amount of plastic waste recycled in facilities doesn’t account for the amount of energy and emissions released in the process, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The NRDC studied state-level permits on select chemical recycling facilities around the nation and found released air pollutants associated with the plants, including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, and dioxins. Many of the toxic chemicals are linked to cancer, nervous system damage, and negative effects on reproduction and development.
“Advanced recycling sounds like a good thing, but what we found is advanced recycling is really advanced pollution,” NRDC’s Singla said.
Those chemicals were brought to the Environmental Protection Agency’s attention in July through a letter from more than 30 lawmakers voicing chemical recycling concerns. The statement came as the agency considers whether to remove Clean Air Act protections from chemical recycling processes with rulemaking to review whether pyrolysis and gasification should continue to be regulated as municipal waste combustion units.
Critics of chemical recycling say plastic waste solutions can start with reducing single-use plastics in the first place and not investing in chemical recycling technology.
California has taken steps to do that, passing the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act in June. The legislation requires producers in the state to reduce single-use plastics packaging by at least 25%, by both weight and height, by 2032. It also outlines a state recycling definition of “maintaining materials in the circular economy, and excluding incineration or other plastics-to-fuel technologies,” meaning pyrolysis and gasification.
Still, advocates pushing the process in the states see chemical recycling as a realistic option to make progress reducing virgin plastic.
Rhode Island may be the next state to see advanced recycling in future legislation. The state’s lawmakers faced a divide on H 8089 and S 2788, two advanced recycling bills, in June. The Senate passed S 2788, but the House said it wouldn’t consider the legislation this year.
State Sen. Frank Lombardo (D), who introduced S 2788, said in a June hearing that advanced recycling puts the country into the future of recycling plastics and is an “economic and environmental game changer.” The process most importantly, he said, diverts plastic from landfills.
“We’re faced with an option and the technology that we have available to us today. Not 10 years from now, not 20 years from now—today,” Lombardo said. “What are our options? I believe that is the best interest and the best solution for our environment to recycle our plastics, given the options that we’re faced with.”