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Preventing pollution or creating more greenhouse gases? Missouri debates ‘advanced recycling’

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Environmental groups say advanced recycling itself emits considerable greenhouse gasses and creates fuels that are dirtier than existing gasoline while a paper funded by and using data from the industry claims exactly the opposite — that the resulting fuels have a reduced environmental impact.

Missouri lawmakers are pushing to ease state regulations on so-called “advanced recycling,” a process proponents say diverts hard-to-recycle plastics from landfills and makes them into new products.

The bill’s sponsor hopes to bring the massive facilities into the state to create jobs while saving the environment from plastic.

But the promise made by advanced recycling is an empty one, critics counter, that does little to improve the environment and uses massive sums of energy, generally, without yielding new plastic.

Advanced, or chemical recycling, breaks down plastics, like films and wrappers, that can’t be processed at mechanical recycling facilities. The hope is to increase the dismal rate of plastic recycling — less than 10% — and ease the burden on landfills.

Chemical industry and business groups say it’s a tool for a more sustainable future with less plastic waste. But environmentalists say the industry is “greenwashing” a process that, in practice, primarily serves to create more fossil fuels.

“It’s just the science isn’t quite there,” said Bridget Sanderson, state director for Environment Missouri. “And there’s of course a lot of greenhouse gas emissions…and toxics that are coming out of these facilities as well.”

Missouri legislators are weighing a bill that would exempt advanced recycling facilities from permit requirements that govern solid waste facilities and treat the businesses like manufacturers in the hopes of coaxing them into the state. At least 18 other states have adopted similar legislation with support from the chemical industry. If adopted, it would remove “unnecessary hoops to jump through,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon.

“And whenever you get rid of some of these regulations, and this industry enters your state, they…spend hundreds of millions of dollars in facilities, they create new jobs, all at the same time while eliminating polymers from landfills and facilities using it as feedstock to produce new plastics,” Knight told a Senate committee earlier this month.

The bill has already cleared the House. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy, and the Environment passed an amended version 5-2 on Wednesday, sending it to the Senate floor for approval.

Often, opponents say, advanced recycling facilities don’t produce new plastics. Instead, they convert processed plastic waste into fuel to be burned — though the American Chemistry Council said that was the first phase of the technology’s development. The industry is transitioning to plastic-to-plastic recycling, the group said in an interview.

There is also little agreement regarding the level of greenhouse gas emissions or risk from toxic waste associated with the process.

Environmental groups say the process itself emits considerable greenhouse gasses and creates fuels that are dirtier than existing gasoline while a paper funded by and using data from the industry claims exactly the opposite — that the resulting fuels have a reduced environmental impact.

One study published in the journal “Energy” found fuels created through advanced recycling technologies produce more greenhouse gas emissions than regular diesel fuel.

Reduce vs. recycle

The U.S. generates more plastic waste each year than any other nation, and the overwhelming majority of it winds up in landfills. Most types of plastics aren’t easily recycled.

“America’s plastic makers are committed to sustainable change,” said Wes Robinson, senior director of state affairs for the American Chemistry Council. “Right now we have an issue because roughly 90% of plastics aren’t actually recyclable.”

He told a Missouri Senate committee “this technology can fix that.”

But “advanced recycling,” Sanderson said, is a “misnomer” for the energy-intensive process that creates fossil fuels from processed plastic and burns it, leaving in place demand for virgin plastics.

During House committee discussion on the bill, a representative asked the Sierra Club’s lobbyist, Michael Berg, whether it was better for plastic waste to wind up in a landfill or be converted into fuel and burned.

“Probably to end up in the landfill,” Berg said. “I mean, those are bad alternatives, but because it stays sequestered in the soil instead of going into the atmosphere.”

The solution to the crisis of plastic pollution is to not use so much plastic, Sanderson said. She said the chemical industry has made people dependent on plastics. She said she was talking to a group of elementary school students about recycling and told them their grandparents didn’t use plastic grocery bags as kids because they didn’t catch on until the 1970s.

Sanderson said every piece of plastic ever made is still on our planet in some form.

“Nothing we should use — the coffee cup or anything — for a few minutes should be lasting on this planet for hundreds of years,” she said.

But the plastic industry contends creating the plastic — most of it non-recyclable — isn’t the problem. The low level of recycling is.

Asked what role a decreasing use of plastic should play in solving the pollution problem, Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability for the American Chemistry Council, said plastics had “led the way” in decreasing the amount of materials used in packaging.

He cited as evidence the transition from laundry detergent being routinely sold as boxed powder to a bottled liquid — and then the concentration of that liquid so that each bottle carried more product.

“The challenge is, though, that we aren’t doing a great job of recycling and recovering those plastics after use,” he said.

Existing recycling businesses have raised concerns about some high-profile advanced recycling facilities that never made it off the ground. Trent Ford, a lobbyist representing the mid-America chapter of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, pointed to Georgia where public officials and an advanced recycling company scrapped plans for a facility after the company failed to deliver “end product” to customers in Indiana, according to Reuters. Meeting such a deadline in Indiana was a condition of the company’s contract in Georgia.

Ford said existing mechanical recyclers also didn’t want to be put at a disadvantage compared to advanced recycling facilities’ potential regulatory break.

Reuters analyzed 30 advanced recycling facilities and found that most are behind schedule or have closed down.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives reported, of more than three dozen facilities announced since the early 2000s, only three are operational — and only one is creating new plastic.

The American Chemistry Council claims there are seven advanced recycling facilities making new plastic at commercial scale.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. 

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