Deception by the Numbers
Despite decades of deceptive industry marketing, we know we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. But the companies making and selling plastic—and their trade association surrogate the American Chemistry Council—aren’t giving up. Instead, they’re doubling down to mislead investors, governments, and the public into believing we can. Here’s how they’re using the fantasy of chemical recycling to do it.
“Chemical recycling” is an intentionally vague term used by the chemical and plastics industries to refer to myriad technologies (many of which remain in the lab or pilot phases), all promising to convert plastic waste into its basic chemical building blocks and generate ‘“like new” plastic. There are two general categories: (1) plastic-to-fuel or waste-to-fuel, which uses a variety of methods, generally involving heat and combustion, to turn plastic or mixed waste into hydrocarbons, such as gas or oil; and (2) plastic-to-plastic, which also uses various methods, including chemical solvents, to degrade plastic polymers into its basic building blocks. However, the engineering realities of these processes make this distinction rather fuzzy.Without a widely accepted technical definition, the industry has often attempted to conflate waste-to-fuel/plastic-to-fuel and plastic-to-plastic under the respective umbrellas of “chemical recycling” and “advanced recycling.” Waste-to-fuel/plastic-to-fuel conversion comprises existing technologies like pyrolysis and gasification, as well as still-theoretical methods. Since these processes produce fossil fuels, energy, or petrochemicals, they should not be considered recycling. Plastic-to-plastic methods would theoretically turn plastic waste directly into its chemical precursors, but these promises may never actually deliver. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade association that represents manufacturers of petrochemicals and plastics, promotes so-called chemical recycling technologies as a means to overcome the identified challenges to “traditional” mechanical recycling collection, sorting, and reprocessing (see 2. Criteria for Evaluation for definitions). The ACC also often and overtly uses “advanced recycling” as a synonym for “chemical recycling,” further confusing the issue, as “advanced” recycling can also refer to innovative elements of mechanical recycling, such as optical sorting.
The ACC often promotes the plastics industry’s sizable investments in plastics recycling. In April 2020—just one day before the debut of the movie The Story of Plastic, which details the environmental and human impacts of the lifecycle of plastic—the ACC issued the statement “the private sector has invested $4.6 billion in advanced recycling technologies to complement and support existing recycling systems.” An infographic posted on the ACC’s website had an even higher $4.8 billion in investment in 52projects supposedly able to divert 3 million tons of waste from landfills, and then later updated this to $5.2 billion in investments in 62 projects supposedly able to divert 3.6 million tons of waste. While the ACC does not promote or publicize the list of these projects, we obtained the list of the projects used to generate this estimate. We found a range of technologies, including so-called “chemical recycling” and waste-to-fuel, as well as mechanical recycling improvements and upgrades, suggesting that the ACC may be trying to conflate unproven technologies and false solutions with mere additions and improvements to existing systems. We reviewed the various projects, technologies, and companies to assess whether these investments are actually plastics recycling and whether any of them might viably—and urgently—reduce plastic production and pollution. We found that many of the investments are going into waste-to-fuel projects (which is not recycling), that one-third of the total projects or companies are likely to not be viable, and that none of the plastic-to-plastic projects on this list shows promise of becoming viable. This means that very little of this investment has a chance of reducing plastic production or pollution, and ensures years of fossil-based plastic production
-Less than 50% of the projects on the ACC’s list of “advanced” recycling met our basic criteria to be deemed credible plastic recycling projects; the rest were either waste-to-fuel/plastic-to-fuel (which is not recycling), or other non-reprocessing projects.
-Of the recycling projects we determined to be valid mechanical or plastic-to-plastic recycling, we found these would have a total processing capacity of 0.2% of the plastic waste generated in 2017. This means that if even these projects are all successful and operate at full capacity, this would not address the overproduction of plastic in the U.S. market.
-About one-third of the total proposed recycling projects either is unlikely to be viable or is questionable as to whether they will be completed, and all of the plastic-to-plastic projects are considered to be of questionable viability or potentially unviable.This means that the promises of plastic-to-plastic recycling show very little likelihood of recycling any plastic.
-Taxpayer funding of at least $506 million was identified to be invested in these projects.
-Almost 90% of the taxpayer funds identified for projects on the ACC’s list went to waste-to-fuel projects, meaning public money is being used to produce fuels, waxes, and chemicals for the petrochemical industry.
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