- The city of Youngstown, Ohio, has adopted a one-year moratorium on pyrolysis, gasification or combustion operations. It applies to facilities that aim to convert plastics, tires or electronics into fuel or feedstock for other products.
- The moratorium comes after energy provider SOBE Thermal Energy Systems filed for a permit to build a facility in Youngstown that would have used pyrolysis to process scrap tires into fuel meant to power steam boilers at various buildings in town.
- Local residents, as well as activist groups like Beyond Plastics, said the proposed facility would pollute nearby neighborhoods. In a separate letter, the U.S. EPA stated that the draft permit as written “raises potential environmental justice concerns.”
The moratorium illustrates how local governments are beginning to play a role in the debate over chemical recycling’s role in the circular economy and environment, especially as such facilities aim to scale up their operations. Youngstown’s city council voted unanimously on Dec. 20 to enact the moratorium.
“The safety and environmental risks of waste pyrolysis are particularly troubling, and the facility’s proposed location adjacent to our downtown and vulnerable neighborhoods is not in alignment with our city’s comprehensive plan,” said Tom Hetrick, Youngstown’s city council president, in a statement after the vote.
On Wednesday, David Ferro, SOBE’s CEO, declined to comment, but he said the company would release a statement with additional information later.
Pyrolysis and gasification are two common types of chemical recycling, also known by the plastics industry as advanced recycling. The processes use high heat and the absence of oxygen to break down chemical bonds in materials. Practitioners say the process is not incineration, but environmentalists disagree. The EPA currently regulates pyrolysis as a type of “waste combustion” but is continuing to develop regulations for the process.
Hetrick said the year-long moratorium gives Youngstown time to “evaluate safety concerns, analyze zoning issues, gather additional public input, prioritize environmental justice, and fully exercise the City of Youngstown’s local control over land-use decisions within city limits in order to protect the health, safety, and well-being of our residents.”
Members of grassroots group SOBE Concerned Citizens said in a statement that they hope the moratorium becomes permanent. They have protested the proposed facility’s possible environmental and health impacts, as well as its proposed location.
The EPA used its EJScreen tool, which maps potential environmental justice concerns, to determine numerous pollution and health impacts around the site. “The neighborhoods around the facility have some of the highest levels in the state for many environmental justice indexes reported by EJScreen,” wrote John Mooney, director of the EPA Region 5 Air and Radiation Division, in a letter to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
“This [moratorium] is a stopgap measure. The mayor needs to inform the CEO of this business that they cannot expand to an industrial operation in a mixed-use community zone,” said Lynn Anderson, a member of SOBE Concerned Citizens, in a statement.
Jess Conard, Appalachia director for Beyond Plastics, added that residents and local officials must continue to fight future proposals related to the facility. “Robust community opposition has been key to preventing this false solution, and Beyond Plastics is committed to working with the community and other communities to ensure that this type of facility is never built,” Conard said.
Youngstown’s moratorium runs counter to laws passed in numerous states in recent years that reclassify chemical recycling as a manufacturing process instead of waste management. Plastics industry groups such as the American Chemistry Council play a major role in crafting and supporting such legislation.
Other strategies to place moratoriums on chemical recycling facilities have come up in recent years, such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a federal bill that calls for numerous plastic reduction measures including restrictions on chemical recycling. The Protecting Communities From Plastics Act, another federal bill, calls for pausing permits for certain facilities. Both bills so far have not moved forward.
Meanwhile, a bill in Maine, LD 1660, aims to confirm that chemical or advanced recycling, including pyrolysis and gasification processes, “does not constitute recycling.” The bill would also subject such facilities to the state’s solid waste management laws.