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Recycling is Exacerbating the Plastic Waste Crisis

by Emily Persico, Policy Analyst

On November 25th, 2020, Pennsylvania became the ninth state in the nation to pass so-called “advanced recycling” legislation.

Coined by the American Chemistry Council, the term encompasses processes that transform plastic waste into their component parts using heat and pressure. Because 99 percent of all plastics are made from oil and fracked gas, the resulting product is most often a fossil fuel.

The legislation redefines plastic-to-fuel operations as “recycling” under state solid waste law, loosening regulations for plastic-burning businesses and potentially paving the way for them to take advantage of future clean energy funding. All this bodes poorly for the residents of Pennsylvania, who can expect more air pollution and an increased reliance on single-use plastic.

The nascent industry is already descending upon our state, using Pennsylvania residents as guinea pigs as they test out new methods and processes. International Recycling Group is planning to sort and process “recycled” plastics in Erie County for use as a fuel and reactant in the steel-making process. Meanwhile, Agilyx Corporation has plans to revert “recycled” plastics into jet fuel for Delta Airlines, expanding a petrochemical hub in an already overburdened community outside of Philadelphia. 

“As we advance the number and types of products we can make from waste plastics, this project marks the first truly commercial-scale facility that will advance the new plastics economy,”  says Agilyx CEO Joe Vaillancourt.

Advanced recycling builds upon a decades-long crusade by the oil and gas industry to undermine the effectiveness of recycling. As public skepticism of plastic started turning into local bans on non-recyclable plastics in the 80s and 90s, the oil and gas industry realized that they had to buy the public’s trust in recycling to keep plastic in the marketplace.

Yet an effective recycling system would be at odds with the industry, which makes $400 billion each year turning fossil fuels into virgin plastics. So while they spent millions of dollars on ads and public relations campaigns to promote recycling, they also quietly celebrated the fact that low-quality recycled plastics could never compete with virgin plastics made from cheap oil and gas. 

Now, the oil and gas industry is taking our trust - our carefully cleaned and sorted plastic recyclables - and burning it. 

Advanced recycling businesses will come to rely upon single-use plastics as feedstock, further aiding oil and gas companies in their ultimate goal of ramping up plastic production by threefold in the next 30 years.

Pennsylvania will bear the brunt of this too. We have an overabundance of fracked gas - so much so that industry executives were forced to curb production this year. Eager to find a use for their unwanted product, elected officials are doling out billions of taxpayer dollars to attract companies that would convert Pennsylvania fracked gas into petrochemicals like plastics and fertilizers. Shell was the first company to cash in on the prize. They will not necessarily be the last.

More fracking, more plastic production, more plastic burning. Is this the solution to our plastics waste crisis?

Plastic recycling is exactly what it was always meant to be: a pseudo-solution to the plastics crisis that assuages consumer guilt just enough to keep plastic production churning. Decades into this distraction, we are finding plastics in our food, our water, our air. We are finding plastics in the placentas of unborn babies.

We don’t need more recycling; we need less plastic. We must let go of our trust in the dysfunctional recycling system and any techno-solutions the plastics industry has to offer, and instead refocus our energy on holding oil and gas companies accountable for their irresponsible production, corporate greenwashing campaigns, and continual attempts to stop meaningful legislation in its tracks. 

Transitioning Pennsylvania to a clean energy economy is one of our top priorities, and so-called “advanced recycling” won’t do anything to get us closer to that goal. PennFuture will closely monitor this emerging industry in 2021, as well as projects already being discussed near Philadelphia and Erie.

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