Introducing Policy to Curb Advanced Recycling Methods

By Ava Leaphart

In recent years, the public sphere has embraced the term “advanced recycling” as an umbrella term for new recycling methods replacing traditional, mechanical recycling. Since 2017, when Florida became the first state to recognize advanced recycling, legislators have increasingly considered and passed laws regarding advanced recycling, particularly in red states1. By 2023, 24 states had enacted legislation regulating advanced recycling, while Massachusetts and Rhode Island had introduced legislation to ban it1. These bans come as many concerns arise from these practices, including they are not cost-effective recycling methods, feature environmental justice issues, and don’t address the root causes of plastic pollution: excess production and use of plastics. For these reasons, the United States government needs to enact legislation to regulate these methods more heavily to encourage more just and effective implementation of them.

The American Chemical Council, a Political Action Committee whose members include ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP, has played a crucial role in advocating for these new recycling methods, which are considerably more expensive than producing new plastics. This situation has led Judith Enck, former regional administrator of the US E.P.A, to propose that the industry will soon pivot to “Waste-to-Energy” as a cheaper alternative2. “Waste-to-Energy” plants are facilities where waste, particularly plastics, undergoes conversion into energy through various processes, including burning and gasification1. Many environmental groups express concerns about the byproducts generated by these “Waste-to-Energy” plants and the reduced oversight they receive due to their classification, along with other advanced recycling facilities, as manufacturing facilities instead of waste-management sites1. This classification grants these plants fewer permitting restrictions and regulations, along with state financial incentives.

These advanced recycling methods also pose inherent environmental justice issues. Currently, 76% of advanced recycling plants are in historically marginalized communities, which are the focus of policy initiatives advocated by the American Chemical Council3. Another significant concern regarding the expansion of advanced recycling practices is that they fail to decrease the amount of plastic production, which is the root cause of the plastic pollution problem. Presently, the United States only recycles about 5% of its plastic, and these advanced recycling facilities are far from operating at a capacity to significantly boost recycling rates without significant trade-offs1.

Because PACs like the American Chemical Council have effectively advocated for pro-advanced recycling legislation in many states, I advocate for federal government intervention to thoroughly assess and establish legislation concerning the expansion of these novel recycling methods. The EPA has already taken steps against “Waste-to-Energy” facilities by imposing new requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act, mandating EPA review of the feedstocks, namely plastics, before conversion into fuel, but additional actions are warranted4. The EPA should impose similar requirements on other advanced recycling methods, such as chemical recycling, which involves converting used plastics into new ones through chemical or heat processes, to ensure comprehensive analysis of their potential environmental impact before they are cleared to begin processing plastics. Similarly, cost-benefit analyses should prioritize examining the unjust placement of these facilities in disadvantaged communities and the resulting health consequences3. In President Biden’s Presidential Memorandum “Modernizing Regulatory Review”, he called for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to propose new procedures better valuing the impacts policies have on disadvantaged communities5. In practice, possible implementations from the OMB include conducting income weighted cost-benefit analyses to account for the more severe costs felt in lower-income areas or requiring separate, additional cost-benefit analyses to the already required ones that solely consider the cost-benefits to disadvantaged members of a potentially impacted community. Through these measures, the EPA can establish stricter requirements for advanced recycling to ensure their effective, beneficial, and equitable implementation.

Resources:

  1. MultiState. “State Legislators Work to Address Plastics via ‘Advanced Recycling.’” MultiState, www.multistate.us/insider/2023/11/1/state-legislators-work-to-address-plastics-via-advanced-recycling. Accessed 13 Feb. 2024.
  2. “American Chemistry Council.” DeSmog, 28 June 2023, www.desmog.com/american-chemistry-council/. and McDERMOTT, JENNIFER. “Advanced Recycling: Plastic Crisis Solution or Distraction?” AP News, AP News, 21 Oct. 2022, apnews.com/article/science-united-states-providence-business-climate-and-environment-b9f202a703ea7fa4231053d544b3266e.
  3. Craigie, Andrew. “Loopholes, Injustice, & the ‘Advanced Recycling’ Myth.” Beyond Plastics – Working To End Single-Use Plastic Pollution, Beyond Plastics – Working To End Single-Use Plastic Pollution, 16 Dec. 2022, www.beyondplastics.org/reports/loopholes-injustice-advanced-recycling-myth.
  4. “Rules for Chemicals Made from Plastic Waste-Based Feedstocks under the Toxic Substances Control Act.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov/reviewing-new-chemicals-under-toxic-substances-control-act-tsca/rules-chemicals-made-plastic-waste. Accessed 13 Feb. 2024.
  5. Graham, John D. “Incorporating Environmental Justice into Benefit-Cost Analysis of Federal Rulemakings.” UR Scholarship Repository, scholarship.richmond.edu/pilr/vol25/iss3/6/. Accessed 27 Feb. 2024.

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