What You Need to Know About Chemical “Recycling”

Published Jun 16, 2023


Climate and Energy

Industry is pushing chemical recycling as a fix for plastic pollution and the climate crisis. It won’t solve either problem — but it will create new ones.

Industry is pushing chemical recycling as a fix for plastic pollution and the climate crisis. It won’t solve either problem — but it will create new ones.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) greenlit the production of a new plastic-based jet fuel — even though it estimated that air pollution from making this fuel could give those exposed a 1-in-4 risk of getting cancer. 

This plastic-based fuel is but one of a dozen that Chevron submitted to the EPA for review. And it’s one of many “chemical recycling” schemes that fossil fuel corporations have cooked up to keep their dying industry afloat. 

It’s no secret that we are in a midst of a plastic pollution crisis. Scientists have found plastic in the pristine reaches of the Arctic, the deepest depths of the ocean, and even in our blood.

As public concern grows, the fossil fuel industry is taking a hint. However, instead of going after real solutions, it’s throwing its weight behind yet another greenwashing scam

Chemical recycling won’t help end plastic pollution or our climate crisis, but it will introduce new toxins into our environment. 

Instead of pouring resources into shiny distractions, we first need to tackle the problem at its source. That means cutting plastic production and moving off fossil fuels.

Plastic Is Unnaturally Hard to Get Rid of

Plastics are complex, hardy, and toxic materials that can last hundreds to thousands of years in nature. Their disposal comes with huge problems. Typically, we have three options: landfill, incineration, or recycling.

Right now, the U.S. incinerates or landfills 90% of its plastic. That means huge amounts of plastic and its toxic additives enter the environment all the time. 

In landfills, plastic leaches dangerous chemicals that pollute our soil and water. They also emit climate-wrecking methane as they break down. 

Meanwhile, incineration emits hazardous air pollutants and creates toxic ash, which poses its own disposal problems.

The popular alternative is recycling. Most people in the U.S. now recycle regularly, after years of fossil fuel and plastics companies touting it as the solution to plastic pollution.

We have more blue bins than ever and widespread buy-in — yet only 6% of plastics produced in the U.S. are actually recycled. That’s because turning old plastic into new is a lot harder than the industry would like to admit.

The recycling we usually think of is called mechanical recycling. The plastic is washed, sorted, and ground into tiny pieces. Then, companies can use those tiny pieces to make new products. 

But mechanical recycling only works for some kinds of plastic, which make up less than half of what the U.S. produces each year. Additionally, plastics’ additives, dyes, and fillers present more challenges.

As a result, in many cases, new plastic is cheaper and easier to create than recycled plastic.

And even when plastic is recycled, the process has its own environmental footprint. It uses toxic solvents and energy often sourced from fossil fuels.

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Chemical Recycling Doesn’t Solve Problems — It Creates New Ones

In response to public concern and the limits of mechanical recycling, fossil fuel and plastic companies are turning toward so-called “advanced” or “chemical recycling.” 

Chemical recycling is an umbrella term for technologies that use chemicals, solvents, and/or heat to break plastics down to the molecular level. Industry has turned to chemical recycling in part because it allows for processing a variety of plastic types together.

In theory, chemical recycling creates raw materials that companies can turn into new plastic. But it’s more commonly used to make fuels, like the one from Chevron that the EPA recently approved. 

This process releases toxic emissions like carbon monoxide, carcinogenic dioxins, arsenic, and other heavy metals. 

Moreover, these fuels emit greenhouse gas emissions when burned, just like fossil fuels. On top of that, powering the recycling process and then refining the plastic oil adds to the climate impact. Early research suggests that creating plastic-based oil is worse for the climate than extracting crude oil from the ground.

But even if chemical recycling focused on plastic-to-plastic instead of plastic-to-fuel, we’d still face many of the same problems that these materials pose: microplastic contamination, dangerous additives, and air and climate pollution from plastic production. 

Industry Uses Chemical Recycling to Greenwash Its Business-as-Usual

To push chemical recycling, the plastic industry and major oil and gas corporations are investing a lot in research and development. 

For example, Shell, ExxonMobil, Dow, and other fossil and chemical companies have committed more than $1 billion to an “Alliance to End Plastic Waste.” Shell alone aims to chemically recycle one million tons of plastic annually by 2025.

But such investments don’t mean much when these companies are still pouring cash into drilling and petrochemicals. 

Take Shell, which recently began operations at a $6 billion plastic plant in Pennsylvania. The plant will produce 1.6 million tons of plastic each year — essentially canceling out its chemical recycling commitment.

At the same time, industry is claiming plastic-based fuels are “cleaner” or “transition” technologies. But these claims eerily echo climate fairytales like “clean coal” and natural gas “bridge fuels.” 

Claims around chemical recycling are yet another smokescreen over fossil fuel companies’ polluting, climate-wrecking business-as-usual. Chemical recycling, or any recycling, means little when companies are still making new plastics and extracting fossil fuels.

To Solve Plastic Pollution, We Need to Tackle It at the Source

Industry would have us believe that recycling is the answer to all our plastic problems — but that’s pure illusion. Even if we did recycle, plastic would still pose huge threats to public health and the climate. 

What’s more, when it comes to chemical recycling, we’re trading one problem for another. And corporations are using chemical recycling to greenwash their dirty drilling and manufacturing.

Instead of chasing red herrings, we need to ban fracking, stop building new petrochemical plants, and develop truly sustainable plastic alternatives.

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