Congress & EPA: Protect People from Toxic Plastic Pollution

NRDC and 200 other organizations recently sent a letter to Congress, calling on all Senators and Representatives not to co-sponsor legislation supported by chemical industry lobbyists that would eliminate Clean Air Act protections and promote the widespread burning of plastic. The industry is pouring a lot of resources and lobbyists into greenwashing plastic burning as “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling.”

Plastic burning/”chemical recycling” is the plastic industry’s supposed solution to the global plastic waste crisis. “Chemical recycling” is not a solution, but it is an attempt to forestall real solutions, chief among them a dramatic reduction in the production of plastic, particularly single-use plastic. While the plastics industry purports to be a partner in addressing the plastic waste crisis, plastic waste is projected to triple in the next 40 years. What’s the industry’s answer? Burning the plastic, while creating enormous amounts of toxic air pollution and hazardous waste, primarily in overburdened environmental justice communities.

Some of the "chemically recycled” material may actually be converted into chemicals that form building blocks for new plastic products (although a Special Report by Reuters, The Recycling Myth, suggests that this applies to very little of the plastic that is “chemically recycled”) but even when this is the case, it is not worth the cost to the communities forced to breathe in the toxic air pollution and hazardous waste generated in the process.

The widespread community opposition to industry-supported legislation intended to boost plastic burning/”chemical recycling” is in tandem with deep concern over the Biden administration’s failure to reject a Trump-era proposal to exempt pyrolysis and gasification incinerators—the two types of waste to energy technologies the chemical industry wants to use for plastic burning—from the Clean Air Act. 100 organizations wrote to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, urging him to pull the plug on the Trump proposal and instead take action to increase pollution controls on incinerators, including “deferred incinerators” such as pyrolysis and gasification facilities. 35 Members of Congress led by Reps. Jared Huffman and Alan Lowenthal, and Senator Cory Booker, also wrote the Administrator to urge rejection of the Trump proposal.

Given the Administrator’s (and the Biden Administration’s) stated commitment to centering environmental justice in its policies, it is alarming that the EPA has not shut down the Trump/chemical industry campaign to get an unprecedented exemption from the Clean Air Act for their plastic-burning incinerators of choice. To be fair, EPA has failed to meet its obligations to regulate incinerators under the Clean Air Act for decades. Repeated lawsuits brought by a number of groups including Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Environmental Integrity Project, NYPIRG, Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and NRDC have yielded multiple court decisions (see here, here, here, here and here) rejecting agency attempts to circumvent the law.

The Biden administration was supposed to be different. It pledged to restore scientific integrity, and center environmental justice. Yet, nearly two years on, the Trump proposal to exempt pyrolysis and gasification from Section 129 of the Clean Air Act remains on the table.

Organizations excited about turning the page on the Trump EPA never imagined that two years later the Agency would still be delivering on favors that the Trump administration was doing for its toxic polluter friends. To fulfill its pledges on science and environmental justice (as well as its commitment to address the PFAS crisis), EPA needs to stand up to the chemical industry’s pressure. The Biden administration and Administrator Regan need to take action and change the Agency’s direction to protect the public. There is no reason to delay acting to ensure plastic burning and other waste incineration technologies are properly regulated and controlled under the Clean Air Act.

EPA should:

  • Reject the Trump-era proposal to exempt pyrolysis and gasification incinerators from the Clean Air Act and affirm that these incinerators must meet the applicable health standards under Section 129 of the CAA. 
  • Update the Agency’s standards for municipal waste incinerators (including pyrolysis and gasification) to require the full degree of pollution reduction that the Clean Air Act requires.

Congress and the Biden administration have better things to do than catering to the chemical industry at the expense of public health, the environment, and communities already overburdened by toxic pollution.

About the Authors

Daniel Rosenberg

Director, Federal Toxics Policy, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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