Greenwashing Alert: “Chemical Recycling” Isn’t Actually Recycling. It’s Plastic Incineration.

Companies are trying to sell communities on a toxic solution to the plastic pollution crisis. The people of Macon, Georgia, saw through it. Will others?

The burning of plastic releases a mixture of pollutants into the environment.

Credit: Patrick Hendry

In his more than 10 years of organizing, Graham Hamilton of the global movement #BreakFreeFromPlastic has never seen people spring into action as quickly as they did in Macon, Georgia, last November—and over Thanksgiving weekend, no less. With just a few days’ notice, about three dozen experts, advocates, and Macon residents attended a public hearing—about half of them in person and during a pandemic—to comment on a so-called “chemical recycling” plant proposed by a company called Brightmark. Only one person at the meeting spoke in favor of the facility.

Brightmark touted the operation as an innovative solution to the global plastic pollution problem. The 5.3 million-square-foot, $680 million facility would be the largest of its kind in the world, the company claimed, with a promise to divert 400,000 tons of plastic from landfills every year. And Brightmark wanted $500 million in tax-exempt bonds to build it in Macon.

But the reality is that chemical recycling—which is strongly supported by the plastics industry itself—isn’t really recycling at all. Brightmark’s supposed cutting-edge technology involves burning plastic to make fuel, much of which would power the plant itself. The process—along with a related plastic-to-chemical method, both of which fall under the “chemical recycling” umbrella—emits toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases, creates hazardous waste, pollutes waterways, and burdens nearby communities. None of the plants in the United States, including one of Brightmark’s in Ashley, Indiana, has been able to prove the company’s claims about the benefits of chemical recycling.

“They wanted us to take it on faith, and that wasn’t good enough,” says Dr. Lindsay Holliday, who has a dental practice in Macon. “Brightmark was selling us a pig in a poke.”

Georgia’s Ocmulgee River is home to an abundance of wildlife and ecosystems, which Brightmark’s plant would have jeopardized.

Credit: Stephen Rahn

The November meeting was just the beginning. The following month, Georgia Water Coalition (GWC), an alliance of more than 275 organizations, listed Brightmark among its Dirty Dozen threats to the state’s waterways. Residents gathered petition signatures, spoke out on social media, and talked to the press. The Southern Environmental Law Center, a GWC member, sent a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division picking apart the company’s permit application. And after Brightmark failed to meet a deadline to demonstrate the viability of its Indiana plant, Macon’s mayor, Lester Miller, publicly withdrew his support for the project in January, citing “long-term safety concerns of this unproven process.”

By early April, the deal was dead. Macon was spared. But the public health advocates warn that this outcome won’t stop Brightmark or other plastics-to-fuel operations from trying to set up shop elsewhere.

“It’s like a shell game,” says Environment Georgia’s Jessica Wahl, who helped organize the opposition in Macon.

Exposing the “chemical recycling” sham

NRDC senior scientist Veena Singla admits she was excited when she first heard about the prospect of chemical recycling. “Going in, I was really hoping to find some good news—I wanted to believe it,” she says of her review of the operations at eight chemical recycling facilities in the United States. “Unfortunately, that’s not what we found at all.”

The evidence showed that, by and large, the plants don’t actually create new plastic out of the old and their processes therefore don’t meet the definition of recycling. Instead, they burn plastics at about 930 degrees Fahrenheit and turn them into fuel. Chemical recycling “creates a mirage of ‘recycling’ to assuage public concerns about increased plastic use and waste but does not disrupt new plastic production,” the report states. It’s simply a greenwashed term created by the plastics industry.

Misinformation abounds, and Hamilton encourages people to “step out of the industry lexicon” and start calling the methods what they are: incineration technologies.

Singla says the research team concluded that chemical recycling is doubly harmful because it adds even more pollution to plastic’s life cycle. What’s more, they also found that seven of the eight facilities they studied are located in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, or both, adding to the environmental injustices the local residents face. Brightmark’s proposed plant for south Macon, an area already home to two Superfund sites, fits that bill as well.

In addition to air pollution, chemical recycling generates an enormous amount of toxic by-products. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data included in the NRDC report, a single plant in Tigard, Oregon, produced 500,000 pounds of hazardous waste in 2019—and then shipped it off to various locations around the country for disposal. The waste contains a cocktail of substances, like benzene and lead, that are known to cause cancer, can harm reproduction and developing fetuses, and can lead to cardiovascular issues and other ailments.

Credit: A furnace being delivered in 2020 to Gulf Coast Growth Ventures’ $10 billion plastic manufacturing complex, which is a joint venture between ExxonMobil and SABIC, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Like Brightmark, ExxonMobil has now entered the chemical recycling market and is building a large facility in Baytown, Texas, not too far from where it manufactures plastic. Eddie Seal/Bloomberg via Getty Images

And by not creating new plastics out of the old stuff, the method doesn’t ultimately reduce demand for it. The serious public health and climate impacts aside, it’s an unproven technology that’s not commercially scalable, and arguably not even operational, says Brett Nadrich, #BreakFreeFromPlastic’s U.S. communications officer. “They’re being very opaque, purposefully hiding behind a smokescreen. The reason is, at the end of the day, the industry doesn’t want to stop making single-use plastics.”

Winning the Whac-a-Mole game

When Macon resident Jill Neimark got involved in the battle to stop Brightmark, she knew that the implications went beyond her city of 150,000. “This mattered in so many more ways than just Macon,” Neimark says. “It mattered for whether or not this kind of plant was going to succeed at that level in a community—and what kind of resistance there would be. It’s part of a bigger picture.”

Environmental advocates have long likened the challenge of stopping polluting facilities to a game of Whac-A-Mole: As soon as you smash one, another pops up somewhere else. So to nobody’s surprise, Brightmark has already indicated it will start looking into another Georgia community. Meanwhile, in Augusta, a different chemical recycling company that goes by the misnomer PureCycle is on track to build a $440 million facility. And still others are trying to move into communities in Indiana, Ohio, and Texas. The companies chose mostly low-income locations that are either already heavily industrialized or very rural, and that lean conservative.

The activists take heart in the fact that even though they’ve seen many chemical recycling facilities proposed over the decades, relatively few have been built, due to high costs and the difficulty of obtaining permits. The plants that do come to fruition either never become fully operational or have so many problems that they shut down. “The fact that the largest one that’s ever been proposed failed is a big deal,” Wahl says of the outcome in Macon.

Compressed plastic at Granger recycling center in Michigan. The chemical recycling industry is urging Michigan legislators to amend the state’s part 115 solid waste law through Senate Bill 954.

Credit: Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services

But the key to reigning in chemical recycling goes well beyond individual local fights, especially as companies keep trying to game the system. Unfortunately, Georgia and more than a dozen other states have either introduced or passed legislation to change the classification of chemical recycling facilities from solid waste to manufacturing (even though they don’t actually manufacture anything). As a result, the companies don’t need to obtain as many permits and are able to skirt regulations. They can also gain access to tax breaks and economic incentives—the plastics industry is currently attempting to secure federal loan guarantees for such facilities—and can continue to pretend they are proposing something positive for the community. “No one wants to say ‘I'm bringing a solid waste facility to our community,’” Singla says. “But manufacturing? That sounds great.”

On the federal level, the EPA is considering adopting a proposed Trump-era rule change that would exclude pyrolysis and gasification (the two technologies used in plastic-to-fuel chemical recycling) from being classified as incinerators, and thus escape regulation under the Clean Air Act. That would allow these companies to pollute uncontrolled and unmonitored, without a requirement to publicly report emissions.

Hamilton and Nadrich also worry that the industry sees the recent United Nations Environment Assembly mandate to create the world’s first plastic treaty as an opportunity to position itself for international expansion. “Regardless of whether the EPA says that these are incinerators, these technologies are going to be outsourced to countries that might not have the same type of regulations as the United States,” says Hamilton. With its deep pockets, the industry could keep pushing its phony cure, but the activists hope treaty negotiators will see through it.

The world’s plastic crisis is out of control with enormous consequences for our health and environment, and it deserves real solutions. We learned long ago that burning our trash isn’t one of them. Chemical recycling is just an old concept with a new name.

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