Innovation

Recycling isn’t a myth—and we need more of it

A recent article from Reuters called recycling—specifically advanced recycling—a “myth.” The message: we should abandon an innovation just as it’s attracting real investments. That’s wrong. Advanced recycling refers to a group of innovations that hold promise and, along with mechanical recycling, could create the waste management system the world needs to address plastic waste.

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Reuters examination of advanced recycling technologies (ARTs) highlights recycling projects that have been delayed or cancelled, and tries to malign both the innovations and the companies investing in them, disregarding the opportunities ARTs create for upcycling and waste elimination. Additionally, the article disregards the importance of plastics across industries and the many environmental benefits they provide. After all, plastics create fewer emissions and have a smaller environmental footprint compared to alternatives because they use fewer resources, like energy and water, to produce.

Yet while plastics help us meet climate and sustainability goals through their environmental benefits, the problem of plastic waste needs to be solved. The wrong way to address plastic waste, however, is to write off recycling solutions—whether mechanical or advanced.  Identifying shortcomings in recycling infrastructure is important, but Reuters’ investigation used limited data and unclear examples to infer that advanced recycling isn’t worthwhile.

Misleading Portrayal of Dow/Hefty Bag Partnership

From the beginning, Reuters is misleading in its presentation of advanced recycling. Its investigation opens with an anecdote about the Energybag® program—a partnership between Dow and Hefty which stepped in to address curbside recycling challenges in many communities across North America. The story isn’t critical of the partnership and its operation in Boise, Idaho because it isn’t diverting waste away from landfills or removing hard-to-recycle plastics from materials recover facilities (MRFs)—both are stated goals of the partnership which continues to operate successfully in North American cities, including Boise.

Instead, the piece criticizes the partnership for two reasons. First, these plastics are being used as fuel for a cement plant. There is no indication in the story that the Energybag® program was misleading for the citizens of Boise. Second, the recycler that initially participated in the program—Renewlogy—was unable to process the plastic because it was, according to the authors, “contaminated with other garbage at 10 times the level it was told to expect.”

This fact is buried, but it raises an important challenge for all recycling. Contamination can make it impossible to repurpose and recycle plastic items, and more consumer education is necessary.

Consumers Have a Role To Play

While recycling can be complicated due to patchwork regulations, consumer education and participation is important. Recycled containers should be rinsed out and even dried before being tossed in the bin. This is not unique to plastic products; it is also true and necessary for recycling cardboard and glass packaging, products that have higher emissions and greater environmental impacts than plastics.

Contamination is an easy issue to fix and consumers have the power to do so. Technologies like Renewlogy’s have real potential to end plastic waste in the environment and keep all plastics inside our economy. Additionally, legislation like the RECYCLE Act, which increases funding for recycling, makes it easier to educate consumers on how to properly recycle products. Fortunately, the bipartisan infrastructure bill also contains provisions for grants that would not only improve recycling infrastructure but educate consumers on sortation and contamination.

Industry Investment is Critical

The article also focuses on four projects out of numerous industry-led projects that aim to create innovative and advanced solutions to plastic waste. The article’s criticism of other projects is that they are “behind schedule,” which is unsurprising given the last year of a global pandemic, labor shortages, and lockdowns.

The plastics industry is committed to addressing plastic waste and has invested  $5.5 billion over the last four years  in recycling solutions and there are successes that can be built upon. In British Columbia, Canada, RecycleBC invested in recycling systems and was able to boost recycling rates to over 75%. Brightmark is investing $680 million in a new advanced plastics recycling plant in Georgia that will divert 400,000 tons of plastic waste from landfills each year. In Germany, LyondellBasell invested in a thermal conversion technology that transforms plastic scrap into new products, like laundry detergent bottles.

Government Must Support Advanced Recycling Efforts

Setbacks in recycling infrastructure aren’t an argument for less action on plastic waste. Government should support these ongoing efforts instead of passing legislation, like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and the CLEAN Future Act, that would place outright bans on ART innovations.  

Recycling, both mechanical and advanced, is valuable to our modernization process to ensure that all plastics stay in the economy. The RECYCLE Act, which creates new funding for recycling education programs is key to these efforts. Meanwhile, bans and punitive regulations will only stymy these efforts and place undue barriers on future recycling innovations. Innovation takes time and we must be patient as these new technologies mature into the best they can be. Support and collaboration will be vital to this process.

It is clear through life cycle assessments (LCAs) that plastics are the most environmentally friendly material available for an array of needs because they require fewer resources, less water, and less energy to produce and support emissions reductions. However, industry also realizes that there are waste challenges that come along with these solutions. Continued investment and collaboration between consumers, industry, and government will ensure that all plastic stays in the economy and out of the environment.

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