Why is chemical recycling controversial?

Gas giant ExxonMobil has launched a large-scale chemical recycling plant in Texas with the goal of recycling over 80 million pounds of plastic waste per year. However, chemical recycling has long been controversial — oil companies may be avid proponents, but environmental groups accuse them of “trying to put a pretty bow” on plastic pollution, The Guardian writes.

How does chemical recycling work?

Plastic waste is a steadily growing problem and a major contributor to a number of ecological problems. Currently, only approximately ten percent of plastics are recycled in the U.S. This is largely because most plastics are unable to be recycled through traditional mechanical recycling. “No flexible plastic packaging can be recycled with mechanical recycling,” explained George Huber, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin to Environmental Health News.

In turn, some companies are trying to recycle plastic on a large scale in hopes of reducing the amount of pollution. This is known as chemical recycling which is when “plastic is heated to temperatures between 800 and 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit to break it down” and then transported to a facility to make it plastic again, writes Politico. “An advantage of advanced recycling is that it can take more of the 90 percent of plastics that aren’t recycled today … and remake them into virgin-quality new plastics approved for medical and food contact applications,” vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council (ACC) Joshua Baca told EHN.

Not everybody is a fan, however, because during the process of breaking down the plastics, called pyrolysis, a number of toxic chemicals are released including benzene, mercury, and arsenic, Politico continues. Additionally, pyrolysis consumes large amounts of energy and water, leading some critics to call the process “so inefficient … it should not be called recycling at all,” per The Guardian

What do supporters say?

Exxon’s recycling plant is one of the largest in the country, and the company plans on opening plants all over the world. Its goal is to have a global recycling capacity of 1 billion pounds of plastic each year by 2026. “There is substantial demand for recycled plastics,” argued President of Exxon’s Product Solutions Company Karen McKee, “and advanced recycling can play an important role by breaking down plastics that could not be recycled in traditional, mechanical methods.”

Those in the industry are inclined to agree. Baca of the ACC, which is an industry group including Exxon, acknowledged “the problem of plastic in the environment,” and deemed chemical recycling as “a critical part of the solution,” to Politico. The goal is to close the loop in plastic production so new plastic no longer needs to be manufactured. Most plastic today either ends up in landfills or is incinerated, according to Chemical and Engineering News.

“The beautiful thing about feedstock recycling is that you take waste plastic, you make a pyrolysis oil, and at the end of the day you make a virgin plastic,” said Carsten Larsen of oil company Dow’s plastics business. “You have a 100 percent normal grade of food-approved plastic, except instead of coming from fossil fuels, it comes from waste plastic.”

What do critics say?

Despite being a seemingly promising solution to plastic pollution, there are a number of downsides to this style of recycling. First, the broken-down plastic actually becomes synthetic crude oil before being turned back into plastic. Some of this oil is used for energy, thereby perpetuating fossil fuel usage, writes Politico. Also, the location of such recycling plants has brought up environmental justice concerns as they are usually built in low-income and minority communities.

“They’re going to be managing toxic chemicals … and they’re going to be putting our communities at risk for either air pollution or something worse,” remarked the manager of the Center for International Environmental Law’s plastics and petrochemicals campaign Jane Patton to EHN. Plastics contain harmful chemicals like phthalates, which are known to be carcinogenic and when plastic is pyrolyzed, it produces dioxins which “can cause cancer, reproductive issues, immune system damage, and other health issues,” EHN continues.

Some say Exxon’s attempt to recycle is hypocritical as the company produced six million tons of new single-use plastic in 2021, more than any other oil and gas company, according to the Plastic Waste Makers Index 2023. Phaedra Pezzullo, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, commented to The Guardian that chemical recycling is “deflecting attention away from what we need, which is reducing single-use plastics and a global treaty on plastic waste.” Veena Singla of the Natural Resources Defense Council added that it is “a way for the industry to continue to expand its plastic production and assuage people’s concerns about plastic waste.”

Overall, there is still no great solution to the problem of plastic pollution other than to greatly reduce its production. “We recognize the challenge with plastics is huge. So we know we need lots of different solutions here,” explained Nena Shaw, of the EPA’s resource conservation and sustainability division. “Everybody is in limbo right now, and you have all these damn industries coming in and taking advantage.”

Gas giant ExxonMobil has launched a large-scale chemical recycling plant in Texas with the goal of recycling over 80 million pounds of plastic waste per year. However, chemical recycling has long been controversial — oil companies may be avid proponents, but environmental groups accuse them of “trying to put a pretty bow” on plastic pollution, The…

Gas giant ExxonMobil has launched a large-scale chemical recycling plant in Texas with the goal of recycling over 80 million pounds of plastic waste per year. However, chemical recycling has long been controversial — oil companies may be avid proponents, but environmental groups accuse them of “trying to put a pretty bow” on plastic pollution, The…