House Democrats Fall for Fossil Fuel Industry Greenwashing Scheme, ‘Chemical Recycling’ in Climate Plan

Report: ‘Chemical Recycling’ Will Make the Plastic and Climate Crises Worse

Amid overwhelming plastic pollution and an exponential rise in plastic production, the fossil fuel industry has touted chemical or “advanced” recycling as a solution to the plastic crisis. “Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan For a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America” by the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, unveiled on June 30th endorses “chemical recycling,” using much of the same language also pushed by the American Chemistry Council and other players. Similar language made it into the Federal RECOVER Act, and states across the country are passing or considering industry-backed bills that would pave the way for “advanced recycling” to take root.

However, a new report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) reveals that what industry in the U.S. calls “advanced recycling” is largely the opposite turning plastic into fuel to be burned. This network of waste and burn facilities overburden low-income communities and communities of color. 

The report finds other fatal inconsistencies in how the industry markets “chemical recycling” versus the reality: millions of dollars have been invested in “chemical recycling” projects, yet based on public information, out of the 37 facilities proposed in the U.S. since 2000, only 3 are currently operational and none have been proven to successfully recover plastic to make new plastics on a commercial scale. The report follows a technical assessment of chemical recycling, which found the technology to be polluting, carbon intensive, and riddled with system failures, disqualifying it as a solution to the escalating plastic problem, especially at the scale needed. 

Denise Patel, GAIA US/Canada Program Director, states, “Plastics are the new villain of the climate fight, and elected officials can’t fall for industry’s claims that they have a silver bullet solution, especially when the evidence does not back up those claims. With the rising crises of climate change, pollution, and economic insecurity under the backdrop of a global pandemic, we have no more time or money to waste on dangerous tech-fixes. Policymakers need to fight climate change at the source, by pursuing policies that place limits on production and support zero waste systems.” 

Key Findings: 

  • Industry misuses the terms “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling,” when in fact, most facilities are not operational, and the few that are are primarily Plastic-to-Fuel (PTF). Plastic-derived fuels are fossil fuels that spend a very small portion of their lifecycle as plastic. This is not recycling, it is an expensive and complicated way to burn fossil fuels. 
  • “Chemical Recycling” is an industry greenwashing tactic, undermining real solutions to the plastics crisis. The fossil fuel industry is investing over $164 billion in expanding plastic production in the U.S., 35 times the amount that they claimed to invest in “chemical recycling.”
  • “Chemical Recycling” is a bad investment. “Chemical recycling”(aka plastic-to-fuel) is competing against, and losing to, virgin plastic production. High likelihood of technical failure has also squandered investment. As of 2017, similar technologies have wasted at least $2 billion of investments with canceled or failed projects across the globe.
  • “Chemical recycling” has a large carbon footprint, and poses a climate risk. Over half of the plastic that is processed in these facilities is released as climate pollution (CO2). That’s on top of the emissions from burning the resulting fuel.
  • “Chemical Recycling” is an environmental health risk, particularly to already overburdened communities. Every step of the process produces toxicants, from the sites themselves, where the product is burned, and at the facilities where the waste from the process goes, oftentimes in environmental justice communities. The chemical recycling industry is looking to expand into the same neighborhoods suffering from fossil fuel industry pollution. 

Dr. Andrew Neil Rollinson, chemical reactor engineer, specialist in alternative thermal conversion technologies, and author of a Technical Assessment of chemical recycling states, “Sound engineering practice and common sense shows that chemical recycling is not the answer to society’s problem of plastic waste. It represents a dangerous distraction from the need for governments to ban single-use and unnecessary plastics, while simultaneously locking society into a ‘business as usual’ future of more oil and gas consumption.” 

“Industry-promoted ‘chemical recycling’ gives the false impression that we can chemically recycle our way out of this crisis, and detracts from what the US should be doing:  reducing the use of plastics. This technology has not worked in the past, cannot survive without significant taxpayer subsidies, creates few jobs and brushes aside the serious climate change and air toxics issues associated with plastic production. We urge the authors of the House report to remove the chemical recycling recommendation if they are serious about addressing climate change,”  said Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and former EPA Regional Administrator.

According to the Association of Mission-Based Recyclers, “The fact that plastic-to-fuel is being labeled as “recycling” is just plain wrong, and threatens the legitimacy of the recycling industry. However, even if plastic-to-plastic chemical recycling was feasible, the sad truth is that 30 years of plastics recycling in the U.S. has failed to significantly stem the tide of plastic waste as more and more new plastics come onto the market. Chemical recycling is just another shiny new toy and is subject to failure for all the same reasons that plastics recycling has failed to scale to date.”

Read the report.

Read the fact sheet.


Study Recommends Solutions, Including Phasing Out Single-Use Plastics 

WASHINGTON, DC — In 2019 alone, the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the pollution from 189 new coal-fired power plants, according to a new report, Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. The rapid global growth of the plastic industry—fueled by cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing—is not only destroying the environment and endangering human health but also undermining efforts to reduce carbon pollution and prevent climate catastrophe.

This is the conclusion of a sweeping new study of the global environmental impact of the plastic industry by the Center for International Environmental Law, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 5 Gyres, and Break Free From Plastic.

The new report gathers research on the greenhouse gas emissions of plastic at each stage of the plastic lifecycle—from its birth as fossil fuels through refining and manufacture to the massive emissions at (and after) plastic’s useful life ends—to create the most comprehensive review to date of the climate impacts of plastic. 

With the ongoing, rapid expansion of the plastic and petrochemical industries, the climate impacts of plastic are poised to accelerate dramatically in the coming decade, threatening the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C degrees. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 500-megawatt coal power plants. By 2050, the production and disposal of plastic could generate 56 gigatons of emissions, as much as 14 percent of the earth’s entire remaining carbon budget.

The rapid growth of the industry over the last decade, driven by cheap natural gas from the hydraulic fracturing boom, has been most dramatic in the United States, which is witnessing a dramatic buildout of new plastic infrastructure in the Gulf Coast and in the Ohio River Valley.

For example, in western Pennsylvania, a new Shell natural gas products processing plant being constructed to provide ingredients for the plastics industry (called an “ethane cracker”) could emit up to 2.25 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution each year (carbon dioxide equivalent tons). A new ethylene plant at ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery along the Texas Gulf Coast will release up to 1.4 million tons, according to the Plastic and Climatereport. Annual emissions from just these two new facilities would be equal to adding almost 800,000 new cars to the road. Yet they are only two among more than 300 new petrochemical projects being built in the US alone, primarily for the production of plastic and plastic additives.

Plastic in the environment is one of the least studied sources of emissions—and a key missing piece from previous studies on plastic’s climate impacts. Oceans absorb a significant amount of the greenhouse gases produced on the planet—as much as 40 percent of all human-produced carbon dioxide since the beginning of the industrial era. Plastic & Climate highlights how a small but growing body of research suggests plastic discarded in the environment may be disrupting the ocean’s natural ability to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide.

Plastic & Climate uses conservative assumptions to create a projection of plastic’s climate impacts under a business-as-usual scenario, meaning that the actual climate impacts of plastic are likely to exceed these projections.

The report identifies a series of actions that can be taken to reduce these climate impacts, concluding that the most effective way to address the plastic crisis is to dramatically reduce the production of unnecessary plastic, beginning with national and global bans on nearly all single-use, disposable plastic.

The proposed solutions include:

  • ending the production and use of single-use, disposable plastic;

  • stopping development of new oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure;

  • fostering the transition to zero-waste communities;

  • implementing extended producer responsibility as a critical component of circular economies; and

  • adopting and enforcing ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including plastic production.

Carroll Muffett, President, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL):

“Humanity has less than twelve years to cut global greenhouse emissions in half and just three decades to eliminate them almost entirely. The massive and rapidly growing emissions from plastic production and disposal undermine that goal and jeopardize global efforts to keep climate change below 1.5 degrees of warming. It has long been clear that plastic threatens the global environment and puts human health at risk. This report demonstrates that plastic, like the rest of the fossil economy, is putting the climate at risk as well. Because the drivers of the climate crisis and the plastic crisis are closely linked, so to are their solutions: humanity must end its reliance on fossil fuels and on fossil plastics that the planet can no longer afford.”

Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO, Plastic Pollution Coalition:

“We commend CIEL and partners’ new report Plastic and Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet for demonstrating the alarming climate impacts of plastic. Plastic pollution is an urgent global crisis, and plastic pollutes at every stage: from extraction to disposal and incineration. This is a decisive moment when we will no longer accept business as usual. Join us in demanding a shift in the system for the health of the Earth and all its living creatures.”

Visit Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Sound Resource Management Group, Inc., 5 Gyres, or #breakfreefromplastic.

By Jan Dell, Independent Engineer, The Last Beach Cleanup

As the equivalent of 65 trash trucks per day[1] of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean in the United States (U.S.) via our land, rivers and coasts, companies that make and sell plastic and single use disposable plastic products continue to tell us that recycling is the primary solution to plastic pollution.  The relentless focus on the future path for recycling plastic packaging flies in the face of the hard facts: post-consumer plastic recycling in the U.S. is generally economically impractical. For example, polypropylene #5 plastic cups and lids promoted as recyclable by fast food companies are not recyclable in a growing number of places of the U.S. As a result, about 6 times more post-consumer plastic waste is burned in the U.S. than is domestically recycled.

Most importantly, there is no proof that plastic material recyclability or access to recycling bins genuinely reduces plastic pollution. Conversely, in The Behavioral Economics of Recycling study published in the October 2016 Harvard Business Review, Remi Trudel at Boston University performed tests that showed people used more cups and gift wrap when there was a recycling bin available. The findings suggested that “consumers feel comfortable using a larger amount of a resource when recycling is an option”.  In testimony to the Colorado State Legislature in defense of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam food containers over replacement by recyclable products, a chemical industry representative stated “This doesn’t mean replacement products will be recycled or reduce litter”.

What does work to reduce plastic pollution? As detailed later in this article, there is abundant proof from numerous studies around the world that legal mechanisms, including plastic bag bans and beverage container deposit laws, do successfully decrease plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is a blight in our cities and on our landscapes and harms our rivers, ocean and many species who mistake plastic for food.  The U.S. ranks 20th on the list of countries contributing to plastic pollution in the ocean with an estimated 88 to 242 million pounds/year. The annual International Coastal Cleanup confirmed the evidence of plastic pollution on U.S. coasts in 2017 when more than 3.7 million pounds of trash, the majority of it plastic, was collected on a single day. The Chattanooga River, still filled with plastic pollution despite continual cleanups, proves that volunteer efforts aren’t enough.

Making matters worse, plastic pollution is an expanding problem as production and consumption of new plastic grows in the U.S. As an independent chemical engineer on a quest to The Last Beach Cleanup, I believe we can’t afford to be distracted by illusory schemes. We must use sound science, credible data and economic facts to adopt legitimate plastic pollution reduction strategies to make real progress at serious scale now.

The Real Story is in the U.S. Government Data

The U.S. Government publishes two sets of data related to plastic waste and recycling. Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) publishes the “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report” with details of the fate of municipal waste. The publication of this report lags by about three years. In July 2018, the USEPA published the 2015 Data Tables.  Each month, the U.S. Census Bureau Trade Online publishes export data for shipments of plastic waste (officially called “waste, paring and scrap”) generated in the U.S. and sent to other countries. The plastic waste exported is predominantly low value municipal plastic waste.  Combined together, the two datasets tell the story of the very low domestic municipal plastic recycling rate in the U.S.

Figure 1 shows that in 2015, before China’s National Sword policy had been announced or enacted, 2.26 million tons of U.S. plastic waste were exported and counted as recycled. Since the USEPA reported that a total of 3.14 million tons were recycled, that means only about 0.88 million tons of municipal plastic waste were recycled domestically in the U.S. in 2015. That is only 2.5% of the total 34.5 million tons of plastic waste that Americans generated. About six times as much municipal plastic waste was burned in the U.S. in 2015 than was domestically recycled.  As exposed in the video documentary “Plastic China” and more than twenty other documentaries and reports, we now know that the exported plastic waste was not all recycled and some of it was also burned.

Now let’s look at 2018: While the U.S. Census Bureau has published plastic waste export data for 2018, the USEPA will not publish the 2018 plastic waste data until 2021. Using industry and news reports, an estimate can be made of how much municipal plastic waste was generated, burned, recycled and landfilled in the U.S. in 2018. While it’s not possible to make an exact prediction of the missing data, a solid engineering estimate of material flows can be made.

In 2018, the total amount of plastic waste generated in the U.S. likely rose to about 39.9 million tons, based on a growth rate of 5% which is equal to the annual growth rate of U.S. bottled water sales. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that plastic waste exports shrunk to 1.19 million tons, primarily because of China’s import restrictions. U.S. plastic waste recycling capacity and production were not reported to have measurably increased by industry and news reports. A sizable new polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle recycler started operations in Los Angeles in late 2018. But, according to the 2016 NAPCOR PET Container Recycling Activity report, 7 of 28 PET recyclers shut down removing 16.6% of processing capacity in 2016.  Based on latest plastics industry recycling reports, domestic recycling of the three top plastic bottle types (#1 PET, #2 HDPE and #3 PP) stayed flat between 2015 and 2017. That means that domestic plastic waste recycling likely remained at about 0.88 million tons. The total amount of plastic waste sent to incineration in 2018 was likely at least as much as in 2015. While two incineration facilities closed during that period, remaining facilities were reported to burn more plastic waste, including about half Philadelphia’s recyclables as reported by The New York Times. In the comprehensive survey of “How recycling is changing in all 50 states”, industry news source Waste Dive reports that plastics collected for recycling are now also being sent to incinerators in Connecticut, Florida, and Wisconsin.

Adding it all together, that means that the U.S. recycled only about 2% of our municipal plastic waste in our domestic facilities and we continued to burn more than six times that amount in 2018.  The ratio may have been even higher, but cities are reluctant to publicize the fact that plastic is being sent to incineration instead of recycling.

Why Isn’t More Plastic Waste Being Recycled in the U.S.?

Product manufacturers prefer new plastic because there is higher material quality and supply certainty at a lower cost.  Using recycled plastic poses contamination and delivery risks and higher costs that manufacturers wish to avoid, resulting in weak demand for recycled plastic.

The costs of recycling include many trucks and drivers to collect the widely dispersed waste, labor and equipment to sort the waste, and processing facilities to clean and convert the material.  Recycling costs are increasing due to tight truck driver and labor markets. Conversely, cheap and abundant natural gas and massive new plastic production expansion is driving the prices of new plastics lower.  These factors work against the key premise that waste plastic will someday have enough value to drive recycling it rather than disposing or destroying it.

The economic realities of cheap new plastic production and low-cost oil and gas production make mechanical and chemical recycling processes economically uncompetitive and impractical at commercial scale.  To quote the chemical industry representative again, “There’s a big difference between what’s technically recyclable and what’s being recycled”. For example, there was a report earlier this year of 10,000 lbs. of unwanted plastic bag waste sitting in a Southern Illinois warehouse because no one wanted to buy it for recycling.

While some companies have made promises to voluntary incorporate more recycled plastic in their products, it isn’t clear that market demand is significantly increasing. In fact, in response to California’s law requiring disclosure of recycled content in beverage bottles, Coca-Cola reported a decrease in recycled content in their soda bottles from 16% in 2017 to 9% in 2018. The company also reported that they still do not use recycled plastic in non-carbonated water, tea, sports drinks and fruit juice beverage bottles sold in California.

Plastic recycling itself also creates plastic waste. The latest NAPCOR report on PET beverage bottle recycling stated that about 29.2% of PET beverage bottles in the U.S. were collected for recycling.  But due to contamination and process losses, not all of that material is actually processed into “clean flake” material for recycling. In fact, about a third of the collected bottle material is disposed to landfill or destroyed in incineration, leaving only 20.9% of the collected bottles converted into recycled material.

What’s Wrong with Incinerating Plastic Waste in the U.S.?

First, incineration is not material recovery, it is material destruction. The plastic waste material is burned into CO2 and water and the heat generated is used to make steam which generates power. While the facilities are called “Waste-to-Energy”, their primary purpose is to destroy material and decrease the volume of waste sent to landfills.  But a significant volume of toxic ash containing heavy me
tals remains when municipal waste is burned – about 10% – 15% of the original volume of waste – and it must be managed and disposed of as a hazardous waste. All but one of the 75 municipal waste incineration facilities in the U.S. were built before 1997 and have had to add pollution controls to address air emissions of heavy metals, SOx and NOx.  Yet concerns of the health impacts from the remaining toxic air emissions and truck traffic is driving the shutdown of some facilities, such as the incinerator in Detroit that exceeded air pollution standards on hundreds of occasions over the past several years. From a climate change perspective, burning plastic is not a smart way to make power. Since a large amount of energy was used and carbon was emitted to make the plastic resin in the first place, the power generated from burning plastic has a higher lifecycle carbon footprint than renewable energy or power generated from natural gas combustion.

What are Proven Solutions to Reduce Plastic Pollution?

The estimated 2% U.S. domestic plastic recycling rate in 2018 should be a wake-up call to the false promise that the existing voluntary, economic-driven U.S. recycling system is a credible solution to plastic pollution. It’s time to implement real solutions to plastic pollution, particularly the reduction of single use plastics in “on-the-go” situations that have the highest likelihood of polluting our environment.

Bans on plastic bags, straws and EPS foam containers: Many single-use plastic items are made of low-value material that makes them widely available but economically impractical to collect and recycle.  When there are reusable alternatives or better materials available, the best solution is to eliminate the items from use. Plastic straws, plastic bags and EPS foam food containers quickly fall into the better-to-eliminate category, as described in the Ban 2.0 List.

Legislative action to restrict single use plastic bag distribution has resulted in a reduction of plastic bag pollution around the world:

  • United Kingdom and Ireland: According to a 25-year study from the United Kingdom government’s Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, there are significantly fewer plastic bags on the seafloor after European countries introduced bag fees.  The study was based on 39 independent scientific surveys of the distribution and abundance of marine litter between 1992 and 2017.

  • Suffolk County, New York:  The number of bags found polluting shorelines fell steeply in the first year after a 5-cent bag fee was enacted.

  • Austin, Texas: the Austin Resource Recovery study found that the Single Use Bag Ordinance was successful in reducing the amount of plastic bag litter in the city. Austin Parks Foundation reported a 90% reduction in plastic bag litter in the first six months after the ordinance had been passed.  (Austin and other local bag ordinances in Texas have since been nullified due to a Texas Supreme Court decision).

  • San Jose, California: Plastic bag litter was cut by 89% in the storm drain system, 60% in the creeks and rivers, and 59% in city streets just 1-2 years after a single-use plastic bag ban took effect.

  • Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post reported about a 30 percent drop in bags collected in cleanups.

  • Folly Beach, South Carolina: Fewer plastic bags found in beach cleanups after plastic bag ban was enacted.

Driven by the motive to reduce plastic pollution and plastic waste generation, over 300 U.S. cities and a few states have passed plastic bag, straw and EPS foam ordinances. The National Coalition of Environmental Legislators (NCEL) reports that 34 states are now considering over 200 pieces of legislation to address plastic pollution. Legislation toolkits for communities and states to create ordinances to restrict or ban plastic items have been developed by Surfrider, Plastic Pollution Coalition and others.

Water refill stations and deposits on plastic beverage bottles: The best strategy to cut plastic beverage bottle pollution is to make it easy for people to use fewer disposable bottles and to ensure that no bottle is left behind.

Public water refill stations are key to decreasing single use plastic water bottle consumption.  Cities and their water agencies benefit from installing water refill stations which offer a filling function in addition to a drinking fountain.  People are provided with free sources of high-quality drinking water and plastic waste is decreased. For example, Eastern Municipal Water District in Southern California has installed nearly 120 water bottle fill stations at schools and popular community facilities.

Container deposit laws (also known as bottle bills) require the collection of a deposit on beverage containers at the point of sale and refund the deposit when the container is returned.  Like plastic bag bans, container deposit laws have also been proven to cut down on plastic beverage bottle pollution.  According to NCEL, ten states and Guam have a deposit-refund system for beverage containers.

Beverage companies should support container deposit laws if they are serious about delivering on their recycled content promises. While beverage companies and their trade associations have fought bottle bills in the past, plastic recycling experts have stated that container deposit laws are needed to collect sufficient used PET bottles to meet the company goals for recycled content.  An industry expert analyzed recycle rates and clearly states in this November 13, 2018 Amcor podcast that voluntary and curbside recycling will not collect sufficient PET bottle material.

What are we waiting for?

Another half of a dump truck of U.S. plastic waste entered the ocean in the ten minutes it took to read this article.  Proven solutions that will reduce U.S. plastic pollution exist and can be swiftly enacted. The success of plastic bag bans and plastic container deposit laws can be extended nationwide and to other most commonly polluted plastic items: EPS foam and other plastic food containers, plastic straws, plastic bottle caps, plastic lids and plastic food wrappers.

It’s time to accept what the facts tell us: plastic recycling is not a serious or realistic solution to reducing plastic pollution in the United States.


Jan Dell, PE, is an independent chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a non-profit organization that collaborates with shareholders and environmental groups on initiatives to reduce plastic pollution. Jan has worked with companies in diverse industries to implement sustainable business and climate resiliency practices in more than 40 countries. Appointed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Jan was a member of the US Federal Committee that led the 3rd National Climate Assessment from 2010 to 2014 and the Vice Chair of the US Federal Advisory Committee on the Sustained National Climate Assessment in 2016-2017.

[1] Extrapolation of Jambeck, et al data to 2019 and assumes large dump truck capacity of 28,000 pounds.

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End Open Burning; Create Long-Term Waste Management Plan

The lack of action by authorities to end open burning of waste across Lebanon is posing serious health risks for nearby residents, violating their right to health, Human Rights Watch said in a new report. People living near open burning reported health problems consistent with the frequent and sustained inhalation of smoke from open burning at waste dumps.

The 67-page report, “‘As If You’re Inhaling Your Death’: The Health Risks of Burning Waste in Lebanon,” finds that Lebanese authorities’ lack of effective action to address widespread open burning of waste and a lack of adequate monitoring or information about the health effects violate Lebanon’s obligations under international law. Open burning of waste is dangerous and avoidable, a consequence of the government’s decades-long failure to manage solid waste in a way that respects environmental and health laws designed to protect people. Scientific studies have documented the dangers smoke from the open burning of household waste pose to human health. Children and older people are at particular risk. Lebanon should end the open burning of waste and carry out a sustainable national waste management strategy that complies with environmental and public health best practices and international law.

“Open burning of waste is harming nearby residents’ health one garbage bag at a time, but authorities are doing virtually nothing to bring this crisis under control,” said Nadim Houry, interim Beirut director at Human Rights Watch. “People may think the garbage crisis started in 2015, but this has been going on for decades as the government jumps from one emergency plan to the next while largely ignoring the situation outside Beirut and surrounding areas.”

Lebanon’s mismanagement of its solid waste came to prominence in 2015 after litter piled up on the streets of its capital, but Human Rights Watch found that a silent crisis has affected the rest of the country for decades. Lebanon does not have a solid waste management plan for the entire country. In the 1990s, the central government arranged for waste collection and disposal in Beirut and Mount Lebanon but left other municipalities to fend for themselves without adequate oversight, financial support, or technical expertise. As a result, open dumping and burning increased across the country. According to researchers at the American University of Beirut, 77 percent of Lebanon’s waste is either openly dumped or landfilled even though they estimate that only 10 to 12 percent cannot be composted or recycled.

Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 residents living near open dumps, public health experts, government officials, doctors, pharmacists, and activists. Researchers also visited 15 locations where burning was reported and used an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, to take aerial photographs at three large dump sites. The images showed black soot from recent burns and ash deposits that indicate large burns at an earlier date. Human Rights Watch also documented three cases of open burning adjacent to schools and one case of burning near a hospital.

The Environment Ministry and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided Human Rights Watch with a map of 617 municipal solid waste uncontrolled dumps across Lebanon, more than 150 of which are burned at least weekly. According to the Civil Defense, Lebanon’s fire department, open burning also increased in Beirut and Mount Lebanon after the waste management system for those areas collapsed in 2015, including a 330 percent increase in Mount Lebanon. The open burning disproportionately takes place in lower income areas, the map revealed.

The vast majority of residents interviewed reported health effects that they attributed to the burning and inhalation of smoke from the open burning of waste, including respiratory issues such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation, and asthma. These symptoms are consistent with exposure to open burning of waste documented in an extensive body of scientific literature.

“It’s like there’s fog across the whole town,” said Othman, a resident of Kfar Zabad who is identified only by his first name. “We are coughing all the time, unable to breathe, sometimes we wake up and see ash in our spit.”

People living near open burning said they were unable to spend time outside, had difficulty sleeping because of air pollution, or had to vacate their homes when burning was taking place. Some said they moved away to avoid the potential health effects.

Families said that uncertainty over whether the burning would lead to more serious health effects for themselves of their children, such as cancer, was taking a heavy psychological toll. In almost all cases, interviewees said their municipality had not provided any information about the risks of open burning or safety precautions. The Lebanese government should provide adequate information about the dangers of waste burning and steps people should be taking to protect themselves from smoke, Human Rights Watch said.

Residents also expressed frustration that, despite repeated complaints to the municipalities where burning was taking place, burning continued and no one was held to account. Municipal officials outside of Beirut and Mount Lebanon said the central government was not providing adequate financial or technical support to manage waste more responsibly and was late in disbursing their share of the Independent Municipal Fund in recent years.

The Environment Ministry says that open burning of waste violates Lebanon’s own environmental protection laws. The government’s lack of effective action to address the issue also violates Lebanon’s obligations under international law, including the government’s duties to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to health. The Environment Ministry appears to lack the necessary personnel and financial resources for effective environmental monitoring.

Lebanon’s cabinet approved a draft law in 2012 that would create a single Solid Waste Management Board, headed by the Environment Ministry, responsible for the national-level decision-making and waste treatment, while leaving waste collection to local authorities. However, parliament has not passed the bill.

Lebanon should adopt a long-term plan for waste management for the entire country that takes into account the associated environmental and health consequences, Human Rights Watch said.

Recent discussions around a long-term plan for waste management in Lebanon have focused on the use of incineration plants. Although Human Rights Watch does not take a position on the particular waste management approach that Lebanon should pursue, some public health experts and activists in Lebanon have opposed the use of incineration, citing concerns about independent monitoring, potential emissions, and high costs.

“One of the most distressing parts of this crisis is the almost total lack of information residents have received about the health risks of living near burning sites,” Houry said. “People have a right to know about any potential dangers in their environment, and Lebanon should be testing the impact of the waste management crisis on the safety of the air, soil, and water and make those results public.”

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By Claire Arkin, GAIA

We all know that single-use plastics are a big problem: they crowd our landfills, pollute our waterways, and are a contributor to toxic pollution when burned. When it comes to throwaway plastics, the good news is, we don’t need them in the first place! The bad news is, the plastic industry wants to continue producing more and more of the stuff in the coming decades. The American Chemistry Council (representing plastic companies) are quick to suggest incineration as the key to the plastic waste problem (a convenient excuse to keep up production).

Dow Chemical is the largest producer of plastic chemicals in the world, and has a lot of skin in this game. So they’ve come up with a “solution” to “previously non-recycled plastics”: just burn it! In their pilot program of the Hefty Energy Bag in Omaha, NE, they have told citizens that they can “recycle” their single-use plastic by collecting them in orange bags, which are then sent to be burned in a cement kiln that has violated the Clean Air Act.

Not only can burning plastic produce some of the most toxic chemicals on earth, like carbon monoxide and dioxin, contributing to the endangerment of the health of communities living nearby, it reinforces the idea that the plastic pollution problem can just be burned away. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and in order to make sure we have a liveable planet for generations to come, we need to transition to a circular economy where our products can be easily reused or recycled, not produced from scratch using greenhouse gases.

Now is the time to say no to greenwashing stunts like the Hefty Energy Bag, and yes to the real solutions that Americans across the country are working on every day. Cities across the country have committed to a zero waste goal, and are banning problem plastics, like styrofoam, plastic bags, and plastic straws. Reusable alternatives to non-recyclable plastic are making it easier to #breakfreefromplastic. Join us to demand a just, equitable, non-toxic, zero waste world where the Hefty Energy Bag program would have no plastic to burn.

Send a message that you will not support the Hefty Energy Bag in your city, and let’s expose the truth behind the bag!

GAIA is a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries whose ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incineration.

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“Plastic is a substance the Earth cannot digest. And every bit of plastic that has ever been created still exists.”

In less than a century, just since the second World War when plastics were first put into commercial use, many billions of tons of the material have been produced and released into the marketplace. With each passing year, hundreds of millions more tons of plastic are added to the ever-accumulating cauldron of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, rivers, and landscapes. But is “every bit” of that plastic really still with us?

The assertion has become a rallying cry in a growing world movement to stop the ever-increasing use and disposal of single-use plastics from harming the planet. Current research indicates that if we don’t curb disposable plastic production, by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean. The urgency is bolstered by evidence that more than 250,000 tons of plastic—that’s 5.5 trillion pieces—have already accumulated in the world’s oceans.

Indeed, the obvious cause and effect of plastic pollution is both easily observable and widely recognized as a global crisis. Simply put: Plastic builds up in the environment and creates huge problems, because it takes a very long time to degrade. According to one study, “Because plastics have only been mass-produced for around 60 years, their longevity in the environment is not known with certainty. Most types of plastics are not biodegradable, and are in fact extremely durable, and therefore the majority of polymers manufactured today will persist for at least decades, and probably for centuries if not millennia.”

Plastics do break down into ever smaller particles through photodegradation, and those recalcitrant microplastics continue to pose toxicity risks to the global food chain. Some plastics are incinerated by local waste management companies. Estimates from Europe in 2012 show that roughly 36 percent of plastic produced there has been incinerated; 2009 numbers from the United States show only 14 percent of post-consumer plastics were incinerated.

Not only is the burn rate for plastic in the U.S. very low, but “even the most technologically advanced incinerators release thousands of pollutants that contaminate our air, soil and water,” according to GAIA, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. That makes incineration itself troublesome, inefficient, and inexact.

“Bioplastics,” which are polymers usually made from food-based products instead of petroleum, now represent a small percentage of the overall plastic pollution problem. These plastics break down in industrial composting facilities, but only through an anaerobic process which produces methane. So unless these composters are very carefully controlled, a powerful accelerant of climate change is released into the atmosphere.

Most plastics are still manufactured from petroleum, a biomaterial that comes from once-living organisms. So why doesn’t petroleum-derived plastic biodegrade? Because “a crucial manufacturing step turns petroleum into a material unrecognized by the organisms that normally break organic matter down,” according to Kenneth Peters, an organic geochemist at Stanford University, in a Live Science report.

Scientific analysis proves that recycling, incineration, and other waste management processes will not adequately address plastic pollution, and the problem is not going away on its own. Since disposable plastics’ net negative effect on the environment and human health is of primary concern, source reduction via a zero-waste approach, coupled with smart policies around extended producer responsibility, remain the most effective ways to stem the tide of plastic pollution overwhelming our planet.

Photo: jritch77 via / CC BY-NC-SA