The technology promises to transform hard-to-recycle containers, food packaging, lids, mailers and endless other items into usable petrochemicals and is championed in particular by the plastic-producing fossil fuel industry. But environmentalists call it a diversion endorsed by those with a vested interest in promoting plastic’s continual use — counter to the key priority of reduction.
Heat and solvents
Residents near the Pennsylvania plot meanwhile have their own concerns: The brush-covered terrain is the proposed site for the chemical recycling plant by a Texas-based company called Encina and has left those living nearby afraid of toxic contamination. "They are acting as a refinery," Point Township resident Annmarie Weber told AFP from her kitchen about a half mile from the site, adding that she fears "air pollution, water pollution, toxic chemicals."
Unlike standard mechanical recycling, chemical recycling uses heat and chemical solvents to break plastic down into its most basic petrochemical building blocks.
According to Encina’s chief sustainability officer Sheida Sahandy, chemical recycling offers a valuable solution to turn "what was trash into a productive material" — a critical task as oceans and landfills fill up with plastic. The raw materials created by chemical recycling can be used to make a variety of products like more plastic — but also fuel. While Encina says it won’t produce fuel, many chemical recycling facilities do.
Creation of fuel, says the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, only perpetuates "a cycle of petrochemical extraction, plastic production and burning."
According to Veena Singla, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, chemical recycling plants are often "permitted to release health-harming air pollution. And many of them are large-quantity hazardous waste generators as well."
Too much plastics in landfills
Only nine percent of US plastic waste is recycled annually, according to latest government figures from 2018 — with the majority of plastic ending up in landfills, incinerated or littered, including multitudes of single-use items.
At ExxonMobil, which has a chemical recycling plant inside its sprawling Baytown, Texas petrochemical complex, senior sustainability advisor Melanie Bower says the process is "a technology that’s complementary to mechanical recycling."
ExxonMobil’s facility is one of only 11 US chemical recycling plants constructed, according to an October report by Beyond Plastics, which said the small number is indicative of a process that is "energy-intensive, expensive, and infeasible." Even if all 11 were operating at full capacity, the report said, they would handle less than 1.3 percent of US plastic waste generated per year.
Exactly how each facility operates and precisely what it produces varies. At ExxonMobil, raw materials produced by chemical recycling are mixed with raw materials derived from fossil fuels to become "indistinguishable from one another," Bower told AFP. While ExxonMobil uses the mixed materials to make things like new plastics, chemicals, alcohols and transportation fuels, it attributes the recycled content to "certified circular plastic."
Beyond Plastics alleges flexible accounting at some chemical recycling plants could mean plastics with minimal recycled content are unfairly labeled as recycled.
From Dow to the American Chemistry Council industry group, corporate behemoths have thrown their weight behind chemical recycling.
It’s in the petrochemical industry’s best interest to convince consumers: "Hey, we have a sustainable, green way to manage plastic waste," Singla said. "A really critical solution is: We need less plastic, period."
Back in Point Township, residents say they are alarmed by plans to use large amounts of river water to wash plastics before returning it to the Susquehanna.
When the water goes back it "will have had a filtration process that it wouldn’t otherwise have," Encina’s Sahandy said. "And we have to comply with all sorts of requirements for making sure there’s nothing sort of harmful in there."
But according to the company and local experts, there are no regulations that would apply to the plant on microplastics and PFAS "forever chemicals" — common additives in plastic that do not easily break down and have been linked to cancer, fertility issues and environmental damage. On top of that, among the petrochemicals produced by Encina is benzene, a known carcinogen which residents fear could be released in the event of an accident or disaster, like flooding of the Susquehanna.
When a company "proposes to use public resources like air, water and soil, it’s only fair that their track record and the proposal is heavily scrutinized," Andrew Stuhl, chair of environmental studies and sciences at nearby Bucknell University told AFP. "I’m firmly on the side that there are way too many risks and unknowns."