In recent years, plastics industry lobbyists have been promoting an old incineration method as a new way to solve the plastic pollution crisis. They are calling the process “advanced recycling,” even though nothing gets recycled. Instead, the trash that enters a so-called “advanced recycling” facility is burned, creating harmful air pollution and toxic ash.
The petrochemical lobby is currently trying to convince EPA that this plastic incineration should not count as incineration. This would leave these incinerators free to emit as much harmful air pollution as they wish, without any monitoring, reporting, or control technologies. Redefining plastic incineration as “manufacturing” and “advanced recycling” would also enable the facilities to cash in on government bonds and tax breaks and to claim they have a solution to the plastic pollution crisis.
We can’t allow this to happen. Renaming the process “advanced recycling” is a duplicitous ploy to evade pollution controls.
What Is “Advanced Recycling”?
Chemical industry lobbyists are trying to co-opt the term “recycling.” Do not be misled.
Under the banner of “advanced recycling,” they are promoting processes that burn plastic garbage and emit toxic chemicals. This is not actual recycling.
The newly greenwashed waste incineration technologies have actually been around for decades, loosely classified as “pyrolysis” and “gasification.” These energy-intensive processes break down plastic trash and other hazardous wastes into constituent chemicals and toxic ash by heating the materials, sometimes close to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The emissions from these pyrolysis and gasification facilities may be even more hazardous than those from conventional solid waste incinerators. The “advanced recycling” units burn the plastics and other waste material in a low-oxygen environment, involving what is known as incomplete combustion. This releases carbon monoxide and highly toxic volatile organic pollutants, such as benzene and formaldehyde. In addition to the greenhouse gases and toxic air emissions, pyrolysis and gasification generate hazardous ash, which is then shipped offsite for disposal.
What Can EPA Do to Protect Us From Plastic Incineration Pollution?
What is particularly troubling is that even though these pyrolysis and gasification incinerators are heavily polluting, most operate without any emissions standards or controls. They have no limits on which toxic chemicals they can release, or in what quantities. They have no monitoring requirements or reporting obligations. EPA lets these waste combustion facilities operate without any pollution limits even though effective control technologies are readily available.
At the state level, the chemical industry lobby has been wildly successful in convincing legislators to redefine pyrolysis and gasification as a green solution to plastic waste. States are rushing to enact laws promoting “advanced recycling” and reclassifying these facilities as manufacturing plants rather than solid waste incinerators. Twenty states have passed legislation thus far, with more in the works.
But the petrochemical lobby’s biggest prize awaits: Convincing EPA to do the same at the federal level. Under fierce pressure from the plastics industry, the Biden EPA is considering whether to adopt a rule change, initiated under President Trump, that would officially exclude these incineration technologies from classification as incinerators, thus evading Clean Air Act pollution requirements altogether.
We can’t allow this to happen. Burning plastics moves the landfill from the Earth to the sky—and directly into our lungs. Many plastic incinerators are located in low-wealth communities and communities of color that are already overburdened by pollution. Calling these incinerators “advanced recycling” is a cynical way to sidestep the pollution controls of the Clean Air Act.
July 5, 2022: Petrochemical Pollution and Our Health