This Is Plastics: Attacks on Advanced Recycling are Becoming More Frequent: Here’s What You Need to Know


Attacks on Advanced Recycling are Becoming More Frequent: Here’s What You Need to Know

Anti-plastics NGOs are beginning to attack advanced recycling more frequently without suggesting practical alternatives to reduce plastic waste. 


To address plastic waste, we need more recycling. Advanced recycling has the potential to infinitely recycle all types of plastics, and the plastics industry is investing billions into these technologies. Anti-plastics NGOs are beginning to attack advanced recycling more frequently without suggesting practical alternatives to reduce plastic waste. 

Advanced Recycling Projects are Hitting Key Milestones

With any new technologies, progress will also come with delays and setbacks, but attacks on advanced recycling tend to cherry pick examples to show that advanced recycling isn’t working. A report from Reuters focused on just four projects, while a recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) only focused on eight. While the plastics industry should learn from setbacks in advanced recycling, we also need to focus on those projects that are successful in order to replicate their operations. 

For example, Chevron began commercial-scale recycling in Texas in 2020, Eastman announced its plastic-to-plastic advanced recycling facility in Kingsport, Tennessee in early 2021, ExxonMobil’s Baytown, Texas facility will be operational by the end of 2022, and an ExxonMobil-LyondellBasell partnership with FCC Environmental Services, the largest recycling facility in Texas, was just announced in February 2022. These projects, and others like them, are expected to make major progress in reducing plastic waste, and investment in advanced recycling technologies is just ramping up. 

Policymakers are investing in advanced recycling, too, with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Plastic Innovation Challenge spurring further research into the technologies. Government and private brands see how advanced recycling technologies contribute to a more circular economy, and both are fostering sustainable innovation around recycled plastics. 

Energy Recovery Keeps Plastics Out of Landfills

Another common attack, recently made in the report from the NRDC, is that some advanced recycling facilities are currently converting plastic waste into fuel. Plastic-to-energy conversions, as NRDC argues, isn’t really “recycling.” This is a point that the plastics industry agrees on. Recycling and recovery are two related, but separate processes. eEnergy recovery technologies take plastics that may be more difficult to recycle and turns them into useful new products and fuels. These technologies are crucial to eliminating plastic waste.

While some advanced recycling facilities may also engage in recovery, the plastics industry does not try to mislabel or rename these processes. Instead, the industry supports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “recovery” label. In the EPA’s hierarchy of waste management, recovery is not as beneficial as recycling, but it is superior to discarding waste in a landfill—an assessment the plastics industry agrees with. In order to keep more waste out of landfills, we need more investments in technologies that recover waste and, more importantly, recycle it.  

Despite the emphasis on recycling over recovery, energy recovery is still a proven solution to plastic waste that groups across Europe have been investing in for years. Zero Waste Europe endorsed the practice in 2019 and companies in Norway and England are investing in energy recovery technologies that reduce plastic waste.  

Advanced Recycling Critics Refuse to be Part of the Solution for Plastics Recycling

NGOs routinely criticize industry for solutions without providing any themselves, and in this case, NRDC is no different. Their report attacks advanced recycling without providing any alternative to the technology currently keeping nonrecyclable plastics out of landfills – without which those plastics would end up as waste instead of energy or new products. NRDC ignores that energy recovery technologies are often the most practical solution to addressing plastic waste in developing countries that lack the waste management resources required to properly clean and sort plastic to be recycled. Energy recovery technologies can take all plastics, regardless of cleanliness, type, or food residue, and turn them into new products or energy, which is crucial to addressing global plastic waste challenges that often hit developing countries the hardest. 

Advanced recycling is a needed complement to mechanical recycling for plastics waste solutions. A 2021 study by the Closed Loop’s Center for the Circular Economy found that “a suite of solutions must be deployed” to address plastic waste, and stated that advanced recycling technologies “have the potential to expand the scope of plastics we can recycle, help preserve the value of resources in our economy, and help meet the demand for high-quality, recycled plastics,” once again underscoring the crucial role of advanced recycling in creating a circular economy. 

Attacks on advanced recycling tend to call for a reduction in plastic production as a means to reduce plastic waste. But this argument is flawed and defies the scientific evidence of plastic’s sustainable qualities. Current alternatives to plastic simply do not have the same, low emissions footprint that plastic has. If we give up advanced recycling and reduce plastic production, we’ll be left with more emissions from plastic alternatives and no solutions to address current plastic waste. 

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