The plastics industry is making a push in states for new laws to make it easier to build next-generation recycling plants that turn waste plastics into feedstocks and fuels, and it recently has secured victories in Iowa and Tennessee.
But the effort — designed to carve out a clearer regulatory approval path for what's called chemical recycling — is drawing opposition from environmental groups and some state legislators in Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas.
The new laws sought by plastics companies and the American Chemistry Council would regulate the plants as manufacturing operations, rather than landfills or solid waste disposal facilities, making it easier to get government approvals.
The recent action in Iowa and Tennessee follows similar successful efforts in Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin.
The push in state governments is linked to the industry's broader $1 billion Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Research into chemical recycling is a key part of the initiative's attempt to find viable markets for hard-to-recycle plastics.
ACC says pyrolysis and other chemical recycling technologies will create economic opportunities.
The association said converting plastics into transportation fuels, for example, could power 98,000 cars a year in Iowa and 219,000 in Tennessee. It estimates that diverting 25 percent of Tennessee's plastic into such chemical recycling facilities could support eight factories and generate $264 million in economic output a year.
"We're pleased to see legislation that attracts new businesses and supports job creation by treating post-use plastics as raw materials for 'manufacturing' and not as 'waste,' said Craig Cookson, senior director of recycling and recovery for Washington-based ACC, in an April 9 statement supporting Iowa and Tennessee's actions.
Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. Wagner The laws will "create a welcoming environment for businesses to convert more post-use plastics into valuable raw materials, thereby keeping more of our plastic resources out of landfills," he said.
Rick Wagner, sustainability policy and program manager at Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., told a Texas state House committee hearing in March that the legislation would create more certainty for investors.
He told legislators that a CP Chem joint venture, Americas Styrenics, has a partnership with Agilyx Corp. to chemically recycle polystyrene into styrene monomer and that the legislation in Texas would help investors by clarifying how waste plastic feedstocks are regulated.
"With the ability to turn those products back into usable building blocks, we're pioneering technology to keep waste out of the environment and create a circular solution with real economic value," Wagner said. "It provides difficult-to-recycle materials with an additional use."
Opposition to proposalsBut some environmental groups and state legislators, while saying they support the goals of removing plastic waste, question the economic viability and environmental impact of the technologies.
One legislator expressed concern about shipments of out-of-state waste.
"My concern is … that we would become a dumping ground for other states to bring in their waste plastics," said South Carolina state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster.
She said the South Carolina legislation did not appear to require pyrolysis plants to put up state reclamation bonds to cover the future cost of potential environmental cleanups if their operations go awry.
Norrell noted a gold mine in her district was required to put up a reclamation bond in case its operations are later found to have polluted local drinking water.
"I don't understand why they're [plastic pyrolysis] being treated differently than a gold mine or a solid waste dumping facility," Norrell said. She led a measure in South Carolina to hold up the bill for further debate.
Supporters of the laws said pyrolysis is a cleaner technology than trash incineration because it does not use oxygen. Rather than burn plastic, pyrolysis heats it and then vaporizes it into a gas.
"The pyrolysis and gasification technologies that this bill supports have numerous advantages over other disposal options such as incineration because pyrolysis doesn't include oxygen; it doesn't burn and emit residue like a traditional incinerator," CP Chem's Wagner said.
Among the chemical recycling technologies being researched, pyrolysis and gasification are the closest to large-scale economic viability, according to ACC.
But some environmental groups say there are negative environmental impacts from pyrolysis.
Jerry Elmer, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation in Providence, R.I., told legislators in a February hearing in that state that other countries and states have found that pyrolysis releases pollutants like dioxin and volatile organic compounds.
"We are concerned about these technologies," Andrew Dobbs, program director for the Austin, Texas-based Texas Campaign for the Environment, said in another hearing. "The record isn't great."
Instead, environmental groups said priority should be given to recycling, reusing or using less material, rather than using more plastic and then chemically treating that waste.
Johnathan Berard, director of Clean Water Action in Rhode Island, said the bill "appears to be an effort to circumvent the long-standing prohibition on incineration" in the state.
South Carolina State House Hixon Berard is co-chair of a task force appointed by Rhode Island's Democratic governor, Gina Raimondo, to take a broad look at single-use plastics.
Dobbs worried that pyrolysis would "cannibalize" well-established markets for traditional mechanical recycling of PET and high density polyethylene bottles because it would divert those materials from traditional recycling streams.
"While it seems like a great idea for plastics three through seven, it could ultimately come after plastics one and two because they have a high calorie value, they have high energy value," Dobbs said. "Once you get the ball rolling on this, it becomes hard to stop."
Some state legislators who support the laws, however, see pyrolysis factories as giving a boost to their cities struggling to pay for recycling of some plastics and glass.
"I've talked to my city, North Augusta; they can't get rid of plastic, they can't get rid of glass," said South Carolina state House Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, one of the sponsors of that bill. "They would welcome a facility like this to come to our state."
China's ban on imported plastic scrap, and other Asian countries following that, is forcing the United States to find ways to deal with plastic scrap at home, ACC said in an April 3 report to Rhode Island lawmakers.
"The situation has resulted in the need to reassess the dependence on overseas markets and work toward developing 21st century technologies and approaches to recycling and recovery," ACC said.
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