A new report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) pushes back on growing discussions around "chemical recycling" or processing strategies supported by the plastics industry. Entitled "All Talk and No Recycling: An Investigation of the U.S. 'Chemical Recycling' Industry," the report states the U.S. chemical recycling sector largely consists of plastic-to-fuel (PTF) operations rather than plastic-to-plastic (PTP) efforts.
Some recycling stakeholders — including plastics groups — have cited chemical recycling as a key effort meant to operate in tandem with traditional mechanical recycling. Environmental groups and some nonprofit recyclers, however, said the practice harms human health and the environment. The facilities have also been slow to come to fruition and fulfill their promises, according to critics.
"Industry has been trying to figure out chemical recycling for decades," said GAIA U.S. Program Director Denise Patel, who told Waste Dive the new report shows those efforts "are just not panning out in ways that are either financially or technically feasible."
Chemical recycling, sometimes grouped with other alternative recycling proposals under the term "advanced recycling," has received increasing attention as stakeholders seek solutions for traditionally low-value mixed plastics. GAIA's report, however, states PTF practices pose a barrier to climate goals, in addition to harming the low-income communities and people of color who often live near industrial facilities in many areas.
In the report, GAIA found 37 chemical recycling facilities have been proposed since the early 2000s, according to publicly available information. Twelve of the proposed projects aim to break down or purify plastic feedstock using solvent or catalysts, but they largely remain in the early development stage (either announcement or pilot), according to GAIA.
Of the remaining facilities, GAIA said only three are operational and all are focused on pyrolysis and gasification PTF processes. Two are explicitly PTF operations — Brightmark's facility in Ashley, Indiana, and New Hope Energy's facility in Tyler, Texas. Agilyx's facility in Tigard, Oregon, is the third; that operation has been cited as a PTP facility, but GAIA's case study states the majority of its output is sent for combustion in cement kilns, including over 49,000 tons of styrene material in 2018.
The report showcases three "case studies," looking at the facilities operated by Agilyx and Brightmark Energy, along with Renewlogy's Salt Lake City, Utah, operation. GAIA found each of these facilities to either be predominately focused on PTF or, in the case of Renewlogy, idled due to operational issues.
Those facilities come with health and environmental risks, Patel said. Agilyx’s Tigard facility, for example, delivers styrene products to its partner Americas Styrenics in St. James Parish, Louisiana. That area has been dubbed "Cancer Alley" by media, advocacy groups and some residents due to the cancer clusters that have cropped up among the majority-Black, low-income communities living in close proximity to industrial plants. All PTF operations meanwhile generate greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. While some in the industry maintain that process is less emissions-intensive than other fossil fuels, GAIA's report says those metrics "either lack independent verification or are based on incomplete, partial life-cycle assessment (LCA) models."
Several of the companies singled out in the report did not respond to a request for comment. Eugene Royal, a spokesperson for New Hope Energy, told Waste Dive the company was not consulted by GAIA for the report and called it "inaccurate in almost every regard" concerning the company's practices. "New Hope Energy is committed to helping create a circular economy with clean processes that reduce the carbon impact and do not add to the landfill," Royal said. He added his company "does not feel any need to rebut GAIA and is content to let the results it produces speak for themselves."
In a statement to Waste Dive, Agilyx Director of Communications John Desmarteau said the company was "disappointed" with the report. GAIA contacted the company regarding its operations, but published the report before Agilyx could respond, Desmarteau said.
"The data [they] used was pulled from public records and was fragmented between our preprocessing of feedstocks correlated to...emissions data also publicly available," Desmarteau said. "This data is not directly related to the actual yield performance of our system."
The company remains "very excited about the efficacy and the level of environmental stewardship" offered by its technology, he added.
Groups like the American Chemistry Council (ACC) have pointed to chemical recycling as key to future advancements for the industry and a solution to growing public and brand concern over plastic waste. ACC did not respond to a request for comment from Waste Dive, but the trade group has pushed for PTF operations for some time. In a public statement, ACC Managing Director of Plastics Markets Keith Christman said such practices are "an important piece of the innovation puzzle" and "offers significant economic opportunities."
ACC's efforts include an initiative once called the Plastics-to-Fuel and Petrochemistry Alliance, which rebranded as the Chemical Recycling Alliance in 2019, and again changed its name in May 2020 to the Advanced Recycling Alliance for Plastics (ARAP), a move meant to reflect its membership. ARAP includes stakeholders such as Chevron Phillips Chemical, along with Agilyx, Brightmark, and Renewlogy.
Chemical recycling has been the subject of panels at conferences like SPC Advance, WASTECON, and others for years. It is unclear how the wider recycling industry may react to these signs of pushback amid ongoing debate. Contributors to GAIA's report include Kate Davenport of Eureka Recycling and Kate Bailey of Eco-Cycle Solutions — both nonprofit MRF operators.
But some stakeholders like Closed Loop Partners (CLP) have called for increased investment in chemical recycling. Analysis by the group has found such technologies could unlock potential revenue opportunities of $120 billion in the United States and Canada. The Recycling Partnership's 2019 "Bridge to Circularity" report also assessed chemical recycling, finding mechanical recycling to be the only process available at scale, with companies seeking to produce polymers at an early development stage.
Georgia Sherwin, CLP communications director, told Waste Dive the company is partnering with select technology providers to analyze the health and environmental impacts associated with technologies that fall under the advanced recycling label.
"There is no silver bullet solution to the plastics crisis and it'll take all of the tools in our toolbox to solve complex global challenges," Sherwin said, explaining CLP supports exploring new approaches to dealing with the waste stream, including items that have proven challenging to recycle. "We need to invest in advanced and mechanical recycling technologies to recapture existing valuable plastics," she continued, adding CLP believes a true solution "will require a combination of approaches to keep valuable materials in play."
GAIA's report reflects growing concern about PTF projects and industry support for them internationally as well. Janek Vähk, a policy coordinator with Zero Waste Europe, shared a joint statement on chemical recycling with Waste Dive on behalf of the European NGO alliance ReThink Plastic. It says more clarification around chemical recycling processes is needed and that the process should only ever be used to deal with "contaminated and degraded durable plastics." ReThink Plastic also calls for further investigation of health and environmental impacts.
On a U.S. city level, chemical recycling has met with mixed interest. Some urban areas — like Phoenix, Arizona — have included the process in their "zero waste" goals. Others have been more reluctant, like Pinellas County in Florida, which did not include chemical recycling in its zero waste plans despite initially considering it.
But attention to chemical recycling seems to be growing at both the state and federal levels. Per GAIA's report, 15 states have introduced legislation that would no longer define post-consumer plastic as solid waste, while chemical recycling or advanced recycling facilities would be "regulated as chemical manufacturing facilities rather than solid waste management." GAIA maintains that shift would lead to more plastic waste flowing into PTF facilities.
The recent climate action plan released by House Democrats includes the option "to chemically recycle certain materials into original molecular building blocks" — language that GAIA said indicated an openness to the process, which concerned them. That inclusion comes months after the Senate stripped language from the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act that would have backed a study advancing chemical recycling.
The back-and-forth over the decision to remove the language could spell controversy for similar federal legislation. GAIA intends to focus on communicating its position on chemical recycling to lawmakers, Patel said.
"I think that the climate plan overall is a real show of progress on climate policy," she said. "But if policymakers and the federal government continue to allow themselves to be influenced by the industry that has brought climate change to our doorstep, that would be a mistake."