Industry: Chemical recycling as solution to waste

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The plastics industry says there is way to help solve the crisis of plastic waste plaguing the planet’s oceans, beaches and lands— recycle it, chemically.

Chemical recycling typically uses heat or chemical solvents to break down plastics into liquid and gas to produce an oil-like mixture or basic chemicals. Industry leaders say that mixture can be made back into plastic pellets to make new products.

The goal is to create a circular economy for plastics, according to the American Chemistry Council, the industry trade association for American chemical companies.

Companies are planning to build large plastics recycling plants and seven smaller facilities across the United States already recycle plastic into new plastic, according to the ACC. A handful of others turn plastic into transportation fuels.

However, environmental groups say advanced recycling is a distraction from real solutions like producing and using less plastic. They suspect the gloss of recycling will enable a continued steep ramp up in global plastics production. Recycling rates for plastic waste are abysmally low, especially in the United States.

Plastic packaging, multi-layered films, bags, polystyrene foam and other hard-to-recycle plastic products are piling up in landfills and in the environment, or going to incinerators.

Alterra Energy in Akron, Ohio says it takes in the hard-to-recycle plastics, typically 40 tons to 50 tons per day, heating and liquifying the plastic to turn it back into an oil or hydrocarbon liquid, about 10,000 gallons to 12,000 gallons daily.

“Our mission is to solve plastic pollution,” said Jeremy DeBenedictis, company president. “That is not just a tag line.”

The process doesn’t involve oxygen so there’s no combustion or incineration of plastics, DeBenedictis said, and their product is trucked as a synthetic oil to petrochemical companies, essentially the “building blocks on a molecular level for new plastic production.”

The materials they take in, that haven’t been able to be recycled until now, should not be sent to landfills, dumped in the ocean or incinerated, DeBenedictis said.

“There is absolutely no way we can meet our climate goals without addressing plastic waste,” added company CEO Fred Schmuck.

In Rhode Island, state lawmakers considered a bill this year to exempt such facilities from solid waste licensing requirements. It was vigorously opposed by environmental activists and residents near the port of Providence who feared it would lead to a new plant in their neighborhood.

U.S. plastics producers have said they will recycle or recover all plastic packaging used in the United States by 2040, and have already announced more than $7 billion in investments in both mechanical and chemical recycling.