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Ocean Conservancy Spearheads Congressional Push for EPA Regulation of Chemical Recycling

“Pyrolysis, gasification and other chemical recycling technologies are just a fancy way to say, ‘burning plastics for energy’”

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© Emily Brauner / Ocean Conservancy

Washington, D.C. – On Friday Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) were joined by 23 other Members of Congress in sending a letter to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies requesting that the EPA continue to regulate gasification and pyrolysis – two of the most common forms of so-called chemical recycling technologies – as “municipal waste combustion units,” despite an earlier move by the Trump administration to strip this provision from the Clean Air Act. Ocean Conservancy worked closely with the Members of Congress to initiate this request as the plastics industry mounts an aggressive lobbying campaign to promote these technologies as solutions to the ocean plastics crisis despite serious environmental and community consequences.

“The truth is that right now pyrolysis, gasification and other chemical recycling technologies are just a fancy way to say, ‘burning plastics for energy,’ and this simply isn’t compatible with a healthy, plastic-free ocean,” said Dr. Anja Brandon, U.S. Plastics Policy Analyst at Ocean Conservancy and a Stanford-trained engineer and material science expert. “Burning plastics emits greenhouse gases and countless toxic chemicals and incentivizes industry to continue unfettered plastics production instead of investing in a working recycling system. To keep plastics out of our ocean, we need to make less plastic, and better recycle what we already have; expanding chemical recycling will kill any chance we have of accomplishing either.”

In 2018, nearly twice as much plastic waste in the U.S. was incinerated (15.8%) as was recycled (8.7%). Meanwhile, incineration is approximately four times as emissions-intensive as mechanical (i.e., traditional) recycling and pyrolysis remains nearly twice as emissions-intensive. A recent study found that 79% of the incinerators in the country are located in predominantly minority or low-income communities.

The letter, sent to Subcommittee Chair Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Ranking Member David Joyce (R-OH), noted that “these chemical recycling technologies contribute to climate change, cause harmful health impacts in the surrounding communities, and do not represent a solution to the plastic pollution crisis. Chemical recycling does not represent a viable path forward to achieving a circular economy.”

The letter has been signed by Representatives Barragán (D-CA), Cleaver (D-MO), Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), McBath (D-GA), Scanlon (D-PA), Khanna (D-CA), Panetta (D-CA), Bonamici (D-OR), Brown (D-OH), Schakowsky (D-IL), DeSaulnier (D-CA), Takano (D-CA), Matsui (D-CA), Jacobs (D-CA), Tonko (D-NY), Blunt Rochester (D-DE), Levin (D-CA), Casten (D-IL), García (D-IL), Raskin (D-MD), McEachin (D-VA), Stansbury (D-NM), Escobar (D-TX). It will next be considered by the appropriations committees in the House and Senate as they craft their FY23 spending bills.

“This language still has a long way to go, but the letter sends a clear signal that regulating chemical recycling is a growing environmental priority,” said Kathy Tsantiris, Associate Director of Government Relations at Ocean Conservancy.

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NOTES TO EDITORS

  • A fact sheet on plastics recycling is available here.
  • The full text of the letter, including the requested language, reads:

Dear Chair Pingree and Ranking Member Joyce,

We are writing to express our strong support for the inclusion of report language for the FY 2023 Interior, Environment & Related Agencies bill to direct the EPA to consider climate and environmental justice impacts of chemical recycling technologies in their ongoing rule-making process regarding the regulatory treatment of pyrolysis and gasification units under Section 129 of the Clean Air Act.

Scientists estimate that more than 11 million metric tons of plastic is entering our ocean every year – and plastic production and consumption are expected to double in the next decade without urgent action. Greenhouse gases are produced at every stage in the plastics lifecycle, and the extraction and production, use and disposal of plastics are responsible for 3-4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A comprehensive approach focused on reducing plastic production is needed to reduce the harms of plastics to our communities, climate, and ocean. While we cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis, the science is clear that we need recycling to work if we want to move towards a circular economy independent of fossil fuels.

Current plastics recycling technology employs mechanical processes like washing, grinding, and re-granulating to recover plastic resins. Chemical recycling, also known as advanced recycling or molecular recycling, includes a suite of technologies that use non-mechanical processes to break down plastics. The two main chemical recycling technologies used for plastics are pyrolysis and gasification, which are similar to incineration in that they produce energy from plastic waste. Rather than incineration where plastics are directed combusted for energy, chemical recycling converts plastics into fuels (e.g., crude oil or synthetic natural gas), which are then used for energy. No plastics are recovered in this process. These chemical recycling technologies contribute to climate change, cause harmful health impacts in the surrounding communities, and do not represent a solution to the plastic pollution crisis. Chemical recycling does not represent a viable path forward to achieving a circular economy. In fact, it could distract us from implementing much-needed solutions to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and improve waste management and recycling systems.

The EPA is currently reviewing whether pyrolysis and gasification units should continue being regulated as “municipal waste combustion units” under Section 129 of the Clean Air Act. Changes in how these facilities are regulated could significantly impact emissions in the communities where these facilities are located, disproportionately impacting minority and low-income communities.

We therefore request the following report language to express concern regarding the increased push for chemical recycling technologies and to direct the EPA to continue regulating these emissions as municipal waste combustion units:

Regulatory treatment of chemical recycling technologies to ensure clean and healthy air for all.- The Committee is concerned about the growth of chemical recycling technologies, specifically pyrolysis and gasification units, for the treatment of plastic waste. These chemical recycling technologies do not result in the recovery of plastic materials to advance a circular economy and the facilities contribute to climate change and impose disproportionate health burdens on the communities where they are located. The Committee directs the Agency to consider the emissions, disproportionate impacts, and lack of circularity in its ongoing rulemaking on the regulatory treatment of gasification and pyrolysis units and directs the Agency to maintain regulating these technologies as “municipal waste combustion units” under CAA Section 129.

We thank you for your consideration of this request.

About Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Program

Ocean Conservancy has led the fight for a clean, healthy ocean free of trash since 1986, when the U.S.-based nonprofit launched its annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Since then, Ocean Conservancy has mobilized millions of ICC volunteers to remove trash from beaches and waterways around the world while pioneering upstream solutions to the growing ocean plastics crisis. Ocean Conservancy invests in cutting-edge scientific research, implements on-the-ground projects, and works with conservationists, scientists, governments, the private sector and members of the public to change the plastics paradigm. To learn more about our Trash Free Seas® program visit oceanconservancy.org/trashfreeseas, and follow Ocean Conservancy on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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