“Chemical recycling”: What you need to know.
Chemical recycling is intended to convert plastic waste to fuel and new plastics. This is not a solution to the plastic waste crisis. It’s not really even recycling. Here’s what you need to know.
Over the first two decades of the 21st century, the amount of plastic waste generated across the world more than doubled. Instead of embracing the only real solution – producing less plastic – the oil, gas and petrochemical industries have proposed their own answer, which they call “chemical recycling.” Chemical recycling is intended to convert plastic waste to fuel and new plastics. This is not a solution to the plastic waste crisis. It’s not really even recycling. Here’s what you need to know.
What is “chemical recycling”?
“Chemical recycling” – sometimes called “advanced recycling” by its proponents – is an umbrella term for a set of technologies that convert plastic waste either into fuel or raw materials for new plastics.
The term covers three broad types of technologies and processes:
1. Conversion (sometimes referred to as “plastics-to-fuel”) turns the polymers in plastic waste into smaller molecules that can be turned into fuel or used as feedstock for the creation of new products. Conversion is carried out via one of two main methods:
- Pyrolysis subjects plastic waste to extreme heat in the absence of oxygen to create a synthetic crude oil that can be refined into diesel fuel, gasoline and other products.
- Gasification uses extreme heat to convert plastic waste to synthesis gas: a fuel mixture mainly composed of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can then be turned into other fuels or chemicals, such as ethanol and methanol.
2. Decomposition uses either heat or chemicals to break down polymers in plastic into monomers to produce new plastics. Chemical decomposition uses powerful solvents to do this. Some decomposition technologies use enzymes.
3. Purification uses strong solvents to break plastic down into its chemical components and separate polymers from additives or contaminants. Unlike other types of chemical recycling, purification leaves the polymers themselves intact.
Where is this happening?
Chemical recycling is still a new technology and there are few operational facilities. However, these technologies are in operation in various U.S. states.
- As of December 2022, there were eight chemical recycling plants operating in the U.S., two under construction, and 12 more proposed but not yet under construction.
- Chemical industry trade group the American Chemistry Council (ACC) advocates for the establishment of more than 150 new plants across the U.S.
- Almost all the existing chemical recycling plants are “plastics-to-fuel” facilities. A 2022 analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that most of these facilities are effectively simply incinerating the plastic, not recycling it. The study highlights one polystyrene pyrolysis plant in Oregon, which, instead of producing new plastics, ships huge volumes of the styrene it produces to “energy recovery” – i.e., to be burned to generate electricity.
What’s wrong with chemical recycling?
“Chemical recycling” is today mostly used as a new euphemism for an old and dirty practice: incineration. Plastics-to-fuel plants using pyrolysis or gasification do not turn plastic into new plastic, do not reduce demand for virgin plastics, and produce fossil fuels that are then burned, contributing to air pollution and global warming. According to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), “This is not recycling. It is an expensive and complicated way to burn fossil fuels.”
Even technologies that could in theory convert plastic waste to new plastics pose major threats to our environment and health:
- Toxic emissions: Chemical recycling processes emit toxic chemicals into the air, including chemicals known to cause cancer, reproductive harm, birth defects and other health problems. State permit documents reviewed by the Environmental Integrity Project’s Oil and Gas Watch show that chemical recycling plants could release 96 different types of dangerous air pollutants. The NRDC similarly lists an array of toxic chemicals emitted by these facilities, including benzene, mercury, arsenic and formaldehyde. Further pollutants are released when the fuel produced at these plants is burned.
- Hazardous waste: Liquid and solid waste produced by plastic-to-fuel facilities contains toxic substances including carcinogens and neurotoxicants. One plant analyzed by the NRDC reported producing almost 500,000 pounds of toxic waste in 2019, most of which was transported offsite to be incinerated. The NRDC study indicates that solvent-based purification processes are no better. One company in Ohio intending to conduct solvent-based purification is registered as a “large-quantity hazardous waste generator,” meaning it anticipates generating at least 2,200 pounds of hazardous waste per month.
- Climate impacts: Since almost all plastic is made from oil or methane gas, fuels produced by plastic-to-fuel processes are still fossil fuels and therefore release greenhouse gases when burned, in addition to the emissions released during the conversion process itself. Gasification generates especially large amounts of CO2, with more than half of the carbon in the plastic feedstock released during the process of cleaning and upgrading the gas produced, in addition to emissions produced from burning the end product and generating the energy needed to power the entire process.
- High energy use: All forms of chemical recycling require massive amounts of energy. This energy may come from non-renewable sources, leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions, and even if it comes from renewable sources, is a huge waste of energy. More energy is needed to power the process than is produced by it, even if the product or by-products of the process are burned for energy, meaning that chemical recycling is not, nor is ever likely to be, self-sustaining. This is true of both plastics-to-fuel and solvent-based processes.
- Bad economics: Chemical recycling is unlikely ever to be economically viable. Its inability to be financially self-sustaining means that any large-scale rollout would likely have to rely on government subsidies that could be better used on things that provide actual societal value, including real solutions to the plastics crisis.
A 2023 analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) concluded that using pyrolysis and gasification to produce plastic is between 10 and 100 times worse on environmental and economic metrics than virgin plastic.
Who is pushing for chemical recycling?
According to GAIA, the main proponents of chemical recycling are big oil and gas corporations, incineration firms, petrochemical companies and the trade groups representing them: for example, the “Alliance to End Plastic Waste” (which includes BASF, ExxonMobil, Occidental Petroleum, Reliance Industries and Shell Oil), and the American Chemistry Council – the main lobbying arm of the chemical industry.
Intensive industry lobbying has led to chemical recycling gaining traction among policymakers.
- Since 2017, 20 states have passed laws that enable chemical recycling projects to skirt current environmental regulations, for example by classifying chemical recycling plants as manufacturers rather than waste-handling facilities, defining chemical recycling as a form of actual recycling, or redefining waste or incineration processes to exclude chemical recycling. As of December 2022, similar laws are being debated in a further three states (Michigan, New Jersey and New York).
- While the EPA currently has neither a formal definition of chemical recycling nor a national framework for regulating it, chemical recycling advocates are pushing the agency to reclassify chemical recycling facilities as manufacturing or recycling facilities (as opposed to waste combustion facilities), allowing them to meet less-stringent environmental standards.
- Chemical recycling is referenced in the EPA’s 2021 National Recycling Strategy as a potential form of recycling that warrants “further discussion.” The EPA recently opened a formal rulemaking process regarding pyrolysis and gasification that could lead to national-level rule changes similar to the recent state laws easing the way for chemical recycling.
Plastic waste is a major problem. Chemical recycling is not the solution.
Proponents of “chemical recycling” misleadingly present it as part of a “circular economy” and a solution to the plastics crisis. But even if chemical recycling plants did what their proponents claim and turn plastic into plastic, this would not reduce the amount of plastic in circulation and would serve merely to justify and incentivize continued or even increased plastics production.
In sum, “chemical recycling” is a form of greenwashing used by the petrochemical industry to ensure a fossil fuel-based future, and a diversion from the pursuit of real solutions for managing plastic waste: curbs on plastics production, bans on single-use plastics, and policies that reduce plastic consumption and support the creation of a genuine circular economy.
- Policymakers should act to reduce the use and production of plastics and hold polluters accountable for the health and environmental damage they inflict. The plastics industry should be required to cover the full costs of the waste it creates through measures such as the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws enacted in a growing number of U.S. states and elsewhere.
- Regulations should clearly distinguish between plastic-to-fuel processes and processes that turn plastics to new plastics. Industry proponents have deployed the term “chemical recycling” to deliberately blur the lines between the different processes involved. Those lines should be clearly delineated and reflected in regulatory frameworks.
- Neither solvent-based nor plastic-to-fuel processes should be enabled to compete against less damaging forms of waste management, such as mechanical recycling. Companies using or intending to use solvent-based processes should not receive subsidies or incentives or benefit from deregulation. Plastic-to-fuel processes should be phased out altogether.
- Policymakers should compel companies engaged in chemical recycling to be transparent about the pollution emitted by their facilities. Chemical recycling plants should be closely monitored for toxic emissions, greenhouse gas emissions and management of hazardous waste. A comprehensive picture of the current state of chemical recycling is hampered by a lack of information about and transparency of these facilities, and much of the data regarding waste-based fuels, their chemical composition and their environmental and health risks is shrouded in secrecy.
Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.
State Director, Environment Oregon Research & Policy Center
As director of Environment Oregon, Celeste develops and runs campaigns to win real results for Oregon's environment. She has worked on issues ranging from preventing plastic pollution, stopping global warming, defending clean water, and protecting our beautiful places. Celeste's organizing has helped to reduce kids' exposure to lead in drinking water at childcare facilities in Oregon, encourage transportation electrification, ban single-use plastic grocery bags, defend our bedrock environmental laws and more. She is also the author of the children's book, Myrtle the Turtle, empowering kids to prevent plastic pollution. Celeste lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two daughters, where they frequently enjoy the bounty of Oregon's natural beauty.
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
James Horrox is a policy analyst at Frontier Group, based in Los Angeles. He holds a BA and PhD in politics and has taught at Manchester University, the University of Salford and the Open University in his native UK. He has worked as a freelance academic editor for more than a decade, and before joining Frontier Group in 2019 he spent two years as a prospect researcher in the Public Interest Network's LA office. His writing has been published in various media outlets, books, journals and reference works.