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Climate ChangeAs Plastics Keep Piling Up, Can ‘Advanced’ Recycling Cut the Waste?

As Plastics Keep Piling Up, Can ‘Advanced’ Recycling Cut the Waste?

Bob Powell had spent greater than a decade within the energy industry when he turned his attention to the issue of plastic waste. “I’m very captivated with the environment,” he says. To him, the accumulating scourge of irresponsibly discarded plastic ranks high on the list of environmental issues, “right behind global warming and drought.” In 2014, he found what he considers an answer: a collection of technologies that uses chemicals and warmth to show plastic into oil to fabricate more plastic.

Within the years since, Powell founded a “plastics renewal” company, Brightmark, Inc., whose first plant, currently in its start-up phase, has processed 2,000 tons of waste plastic at its Circularity Center in Ashley, Indiana. Using an “advanced plastics recycling” technique called pyrolysis, post-consumer plastics delivered to the Brightmark plant are subjected to intense heat in an oxygen-starved environment until their molecules shake apart, yielding a kind of oil just like plastic’s petroleum feedstock, together with some waste byproducts. Ideally, Powell says, Brightmark will sell the oil to provide latest plastic, promoting true circularity within the manufacturing supply chain.

World wide, firms are drawing up plans for pyrolysis plants, promising relief from the crushing problem of plastic pollution. Small startups and demonstration projects are joining with larger firms, including petroleum and chemical giants. Chevron Phillips was recently awarded a patent for its proprietary pyrolysis process, and ExxonMobil announced in March it was considering opening pyrolysis plants in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Beaumont, Texas; and Joliet, Illinois. ExxonMobil already operates a pyrolysis facility in Baytown, Texas, which the corporate claims will recycle 500,000 tons of plastic waste annually by 2026.

“There’s a scarcity of transparency about how much plastic they’re recycling” and what the tip product shall be used for, a critic says.

Globally, the marketplace for advanced recycling technologies is projected to exceed $9 billion by 2031, up from $270 million in 2022, in response to a report from Research and Markets, an industry evaluation firm. That’s a 32 percent increase every one in all those nine years.

Proponents of pyrolysis say it should keep plastic out of landfills, incinerators, and waterways, prevent it from choking marine life, and keep its toxic components from leaching into soil and contaminating water and air. The American Chemistry Council says that “advanced recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions 43 percent relative to waste-to-energy incineration of plastic movies made out of virgin resources.”

The technology can handle the plastics that may’t be mechanically melted and remolded — those stamped with the numbers three through seven, including certain plastic movies, juice pouches, and polystyrene foam take-out boxes. The pyrolysis vessel itself emits nothing — there’s no oxygen, so no combustion — although heating it with fossil fuel releases the same old greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

Opponents argue, nonetheless, that pyrolysis practitioners aren’t being entirely honest about their manufacturing outcomes. “There’s an actual lack of transparency about how much plastic they’re recycling” and what their end product — pyrolysis oil — will actually be used for, says Veena Singla, a senior scientist on the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Exxon’s advanced recycling facility in Baytown, Texas.
Business Wire

Some firms, resembling LG Chem in South Korea, do have verifiable plans to process plastic items into useful hard goods. The corporate has partnered with the marine-waste disposal company NETSPA to show fishnets and buoys right into a substance called “aerogel,” a superlight insulation; its pyrolysis plant is scheduled to be up and running near Seoul by 2024.

But what pyrolysis mostly does, says Singla, is make oil to be refined after which sold as fuel. An evaluation by the Minderoo Foundation, an Australia-based philanthropic organization focused on the environment, calculated that of the roughly 2 million tons of advanced recycling capability scheduled to come back online over the following five years, lower than half 1,000,000 tons of this material will actually be recycled back into plastic goods. The remaining of the output is destined to power airplanes, trucks, and other heavy transportation.

Depending on the kind of plastic that enters a pyrolysis vessel and the present price of oil, turning plastics into fuel is perhaps profitable. What it’s not, says Singla, is recycling. “The advantage of recycling comes while you return materials into the production cycle, which reduces the demand for virgin resources.” That’s what the standard, mechanical recycling of easy polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic does. Making plastic goods with recycled content generates 30 to 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than making plastics from virgin resources. “Now should you’re taking plastic and burning it as fuel,” Singla says, “it’s not feeding back into plastic production. And so to maintain making [new] plastic, you might have to maintain extracting fossil fuel.”

The information from one study suggests creating pyrolysis oil from used plastic is worse for the climate than extracting crude from the bottom.

Powell says his aim is 100% circularity, plastic to plastic, “and we’re going to be relentless in that pursuit.” But while the market matures and costs for recycled plastic drop, he admits that as “an interim step” some pyrolysis oil could possibly be sold as fuel. “In some emerging economy nations, there is probably not a viable technique to use the liquids as a feedstock to make plastics,” he says. They could be too removed from manufacturing facilities for plastic manufacturing to make sense, for example. But Powell insists even this consequence is healthier than leaving the 90 percent of post-consumer plastic that isn’t recycled to build up within the environment. “I’m sure you’ve seen the videos of places where there are only rivers of plastics flowing. If we were to tug those plastics out and switch them into fuel, is that a greater environmental consequence?”

“Yes it’s,” he answers himself. “You’d higher imagine it.”

Turning plastic into fuel would obviously help keep the petroleum-based polymer industry afloat: To some observers, that’s the purpose of advanced chemical recycling. “The fossil gas industry is searching for to make use of plastics as a technique to expand their production, whilst they’re contributing enormously to climate chaos,” says Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, one in all 47 U.S. Senators, all Democrats, who signed a letter objecting to the EPA’s 2021 proposal to manage pyrolysis and gasification as manufacturing as an alternative of incineration, which is more tightly regulated. Merkley has also questioned the EPA’s inclusion of plastic-based fuel as a “waste-based” fuel under the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal program that requires transportation fuel sold within the U.S. to contain a various percentage of renewable fuels to scale back greenhouse gas emissions.

The fate of plastic produced globally from 1950 to 2015 in million metric tons.

The fate of plastic produced globally from 1950 to 2015 in million metric tons.
Our World in Data / adapted by Yale Environment 360

Fuel made out of plastic doesn’t meet the essential criteria for biofuels or renewable fuels, says Taylor Uekert, a researcher on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in Golden, Colorado, and lead creator of a study on plastics recycling methods. “Plastic just isn’t an infinitely renewable resource,” Uekert says. Neither is plastic-based fuel a win for the climate. “If you happen to’re turning plastic back into oil for fuel,” she says, “you might want to be comparing it to the environmental impacts of making that fuel from fossil sources.”

NREL researchers have begun collecting data from patent applications that compare the energy it takes to provide pyrolysis oil with the energy that burning that oil can generate. Thus far, the information suggests that creating pyrolysis oil from used plastic, including the energy required to superheat the vessel, is worse for the climate than extracting latest crude from the bottom.

“Generally, you’re getting higher greenhouse gas emissions from pyrolysis than you’ll from conventional drilling,” Uekert says. And you’ll be able to’t just turn around and add pure pyrolysis oil to your gas tank. It must be refined. That refining process is where essentially the most serious consequence of plastic-to-fuel is available in, impacting the individuals who live near refineries — most of them Black, Brown, or low-income — with one other set of toxic emissions.

A Mississippi residents’ group is suing the EPA for approving plastic-based fuel production at a Chevron refinery.

Reporting in ProPublica uncovered data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that showed long-term exposure to emissions related to the production of jet fuel from plastic-based oil carries a one-in-four lifetime cancer risk. “That type of risk is obscene,” Linda Birnbaum, former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told ProPublica. Nevertheless, the EPA has authorized production of this “latest chemical” at a Chevron refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi, without revealing the proprietary substance’s name.

Chevron’s refinery isn’t the one facility turning pyrolysis oil into transportation fuels, notes Kathleen O’Brien, a senior attorney with the Toxic Exposure and Health Program on the environmental law firm Earthjustice. “We’re aware of other facilities in other parts of the country which have also indicated that they’re refining or producing fuel products from pyrolysis oils,” she says. Nevertheless it’s obscure the scope of the issue, and even which particular communities are in danger, “due to the profound lack of transparency from the EPA in the method for approving these latest chemicals.” Earthjustice is currently representing a Mississippi residents’ group suing the EPA for approving, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Chevron refinery’s plastic-based fuel production. Says O’Brien, “We intend to challenge the EPA’s lack of transparency as a legal violation in that case.”

Plastic waste in Ballona Creek in Culver City, California.

Plastic waste in Ballona Creek in Culver City, California.
Citizen of the Planet / UIG via Getty Images

Alexis Goldsmith, an organizer with the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, says that pyrolysis and its analogs, which she calls “false recycling,” have one other drawback: “They take away political will from waste reduction,” she says, potentially dissuading lawmakers from passing plastic bag bans and other laws which may reduce the quantity of plastic in circulation. As an alternative, some state governments are welcoming pyrolysis and gasification of plastic as an answer to plastic waste, obviating the necessity to scale back polymer use in the buyer and business sectors. As of this April, 24 states, including Indiana, where Brightmark’s Circularity Center is situated, have passed laws classifying pyrolysis and gasification as manufacturing as an alternative of incineration or solid waste disposal, clearing the best way for the plants to operate under lighter regulation and sometimes with government incentives for job creation.

Goldsmith thinks it’s the mistaken idea altogether. “We are able to’t recycle our way out of the plastic-waste crisis,” she says, either by mechanical or chemical means. “We’d like to require the world’s biggest plastic polluters to scale back the quantity of plastic that they’re pumping into the market in the primary place.”

So what to do with the a whole bunch of thousands and thousands of tons of polymers already circulating within the environment, consumer sector, and waste stream? “Contain it,” she says, “identical to we do with nuclear waste. Higher to contain it in a landfill than burn it.”


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