“Advanced Recycling” is Not a Solution to Plastic Pollution

Over the last several years, growing numbers of people have seen or heard the fact that traditional “mechanical” plastic recycling has epically failed: At most, only 9 percent of all plastic made since the mid-1900s has been sorted apart, shredded up, and melted down for reuse in new batches of plastic stuff, downcycled into other objects. Meanwhile, most plastic collected as “recycling” is actually landfilled, burned, or shipped to other nations and cause pollution, and is a major contributor to the climate crisis. Meanwhile, global production of plastics continues to climb, and is only expected to problematically rise in the future.

As a result of the increasing awareness around plastic recycling’s failure, the plastic and petrochemical industries—as well as consumer brands using huge amounts of plastic in their products—now face significant backlash. Corporate giants churning out plastic pollution, which decades ago answered the public outcry over plastic pollution with mechanical recycling and anti-litter campaigns, are working to counter society’s growing consciousness. 
This time around they are pitching “advanced recycling” (previously called “chemical recycling”) to the public, media, and policymakers as a revamped strategy for coping with their rapidly accumulating plastic pollution. In reality, “advanced recycling” is just another harmful industry-driven false fix that delays and distracts from real solutions—most notably among them, turning off the plastic tap.

There’s Nothing Advanced About “Advanced Recycling”

Over the last decade, companies dealing in fossil fuels, petrochemicals, consumer goods, and plastics have launched or planned more than 120 “advanced recycling” operations worldwide, yet less than 10 percent are reportedly in operation. “Advanced recycling” facilities turn plastic waste into low-grade fossil fuels and petrochemicals (called “feedstock” in industry speak) by subjecting it to high heat, microwave radiation, pressure, and/or chemicals. 

Industries that support “advanced recycling” claim it is a “sustainable” and “circular” way to address plastic waste by turning it into substances that could be turned into plastic again. But the process is far from circular in practice: converting what yields from “advanced recycling” plastic would require significant input of extra chemicals, energy, and additives. The industry has no track record of reliably doing this. 

Most commonly, “advanced recycling” operations transform plastics into low-grade fuels that, just like freshly extracted gas or oil, release toxic pollution and greenhouse gases when burned for energy—and that’s when they produce anything at all. Currently, “advanced recycling” operations are predominantly small scale. The industry reportedly struggles with problems relating to sorting and cleaning mixed plastic waste, as some plastics like polyethylene (PET) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) appear to gunk up “advanced recycling” equipment.

“Advanced Recycling” Means More Pollution

As they did with mechanical recycling, industries and corporations are now painting “advanced recycling” as a “green,” “circular” panacea to the plastic crisis they created—despite plenty of recent truth-telling done by frontline groups, scientists, and the media about its true costs. While doing nothing to stop plastic production—the key cause of plastic pollution—“advanced recycling” operations cause serious harm to people and the environment in many ways, including by:

  • creating large amounts of air, soil, and water pollution through releases of toxic chemicals, such as benzene, dioxins, ethyl benzene, toluene, and xylenes, which can cause cancers, nervous system damage, and harm to reproductive and developmental health
  • creating toxic waste products from “advanced recycling” that are not reliably tracked, tested, and logged for their harm to human and environmental health
  • being overwhelmingly sited for BIPOC, rural, and low-income communities, causing environmental injustice and dire public health disparities
  • relying upon continued production of plastic and exploitation of fossil fuels to exist
  • contributing to the climate crisis by demanding energy that releases greenhouse gases and creating products that continue to release greenhouse gases when they are subsequently used (most often burned as fuel)
  • requiring storage and release of hazardous chemicals on site
  • carrying risk of fires and explosions at facilities that could harm workers and communities, due to high heat and chemicals used as well as plastic waste stored

False Solutions Keep Industries in Business…at Our Expense

With waste incinerators increasingly under fire for pouring out streams of toxic ash, hazardous chemicals, and greenhouse gases in underserved communities, not “burning plastic for energy” is something that “advanced recycling” operators sometimes tout. However, “advanced recycling” operations require significant amounts of energy, the sources of which are predominantly fossil fuels. This continued reliance on fossil fuel exploitation and plastic production that “advanced recycling” relies upon deeply undermines global climate, environmental, and justice commitments. 

Just this year, the United Nations agreed on a mandate for a legally binding global plastics treaty that addresses plastics up and down the pipeline, and called plastics an urgent human rights issue. “Advanced recycling” should not be accepted as a solution to plastic pollution at a time when humanity’s uncontrolled release of manmade chemicals and materials—namely, petrochemical-derived plastic—has breached a threshold of both safety and accountability. 

If not for plastics, petrochemicals, and fossil fuels, “advanced recycling” would not exist. Allowing industries to continue exploiting and producing these substances is a major concern on a planet where leading scientists agree they must urgently stop doing so, or risk raising Earth’s temperature past a dangerous threshold within the next five years.

The only thing advanced about ‘advanced recycling’ is that it’s ‘advanced pollution’: a toxic transfer of pollution to pollutants.

Jackie Nuñez, Advocacy & Engagement Manager, Plastic Pollution Coalition, & Founder, The Last Plastic Straw 

Tell Your Representatives to Oppose “Advanced Recycling”

Earlier this year, citing scientific evidence, lawmakers urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to continue regulating “advanced recycling” as big industrial and corporate investments in lobbying to promote “advanced recycling,” particularly by the American Chemistry Council, have so far proven alarmingly successful at persuading many policymakers to welcome these harmful technologies to their jurisdictions.

To date, more than 20 states have passed laws that reclassify these “advanced recycling” technologies as manufacturing rather than solid waste management. This reclassification ensures that these facilities are exempt from the Clean Air Act, so they can emit anything they want into the air. Such classification also makes it more likely for “advanced recycling” facilities to qualify for government subsidies and other financial incentives, and qualify for less stringent pollution permitting regulations than if they were considered solid waste facilities. In the US, the EPA currently regulates pollution created by these so called “advanced recycling” facilities as “municipal waste combustion units.” But the plastic industry is actively working at both the state and national level for bad policy bills allowing them to reclassify incinerators as “manufacturing or recycling,” which allows Big Plastic to sidestep the more stringent Clean Air Act requirements as well as excuses them from getting a Solid Waste Facility permit, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

On a federal level, industry-friendly legislation, such as the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, further undermines real solutions to plastic pollution and the climate crisis instead of supporting local renewable, reusable, and regenerative projects that would help people and the planet. Policies are presently shaped in ways that maintain the fossil fuel status quo by enabling lethal industries to continue operating. 

Ensure your local representatives know the truths about “advanced recycling.” Share this article and show up to hearings prepared to speak out. Help center frontline voices by listening, supporting, and being present. Plastic never was and never will be disposable and neither are we. Together we can continue pushing forward real solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.

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People often ask what really happens to their plastic recycling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter where you set out your plastic for recycling collection, whether at the end of your driveway, at your local recycling center, or in a municipal recycling bin: Most plastic items collected as recycling are not actually recycled. Surprisingly, plastic is not designed to be recycled.

When you put used plastic (packaging, bottles, wraps, films, etc.) in a recycling bin (or trash bin), it is transferred into the hands of the global waste industry. This industry is made up of a wide network of businesses, governments, and individuals vying for a share of the nearly $500 billion that is generated annually in the global waste market. This trash trade has grown significantly over time, apace with plastics production and per capita waste generation, though recycling of plastic and other types of waste makes up a very small share of the market.

From a recycling bin, plastics are sent by rail or truck to waste-sorting facilities, also called materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Here, plastics are commonly sorted by like types (think films and bags, bottles, foams) and baled (squashed together into easily transportable space-saving cubes). Then it’s loaded back up on a train or truck, or a cargo ship, for the next leg of its journey.

1. Plastic “Recycling” Pollutes When Transported

The transportation of plastic—no matter how it is carried—contributes to plastic pollution, as plastics easily blow, roll, bounce, or are picked by animals like seagulls while they are on the move. This escaped plastic waste enters the environment and begins to break apart into plastic particles that enter our bodies when we eat, drink, and breathe. We’re exposed to even more pollution from the machines, vehicles, and fuels needed to power this constant transportation of plastic waste, which spew out hazardous particulate air pollution and climate-warming greenhouse gases.

2. Plastic “Recycling” Gets Shipped Away—But There is No “Away”

An enormous amount of plastics, labeled as “recycling,” have been historically shipped from the Global North to the Global South. Shipped plastic waste is rarely ever recycled upon reaching its destination. Instead, this waste colonialism more commonly involves waste haulers illegally dumping and open-burning plastics, shouldering the people who live near these dumping sites with major health risks and a degraded environment. People who earn incomes by picking wastes make the least from cheap plastics, and because of constant exposure to plastics in their line of work face elevated risks of cancers, infectious diseases (which cling to plastics), respiratory problems, and other serious health issues.

3. Plastic “Recycling” Ends Up in Landfills

Other plastics collected as recycling are simply landfilled or open-dumped (often illegally). Landfills and dumps emit climate-warming methane gas, attract insects and scavenging disease-carrying animals like rats and gulls, and leach toxic chemicals into surrounding soils and waters. They bring constant and loud truck and rail traffic to neighborhoods, release noxious diesel and waste fumes, and carry high risk of fires generated by landfill gases and highly flammable plastic waste.

4. Plastic “Recycling” Gets Burned

A growing amount of plastics are sent to incinerators, sometimes called “waste-to-energy” plants. These facilities burn plastics in huge ovens, to release toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases, while producing only meager amounts of electricity. Incineration also produces a constant stream of toxic ash that is hazardously stored in manmade ponds or is landfilled. Incinerator ash and emissions release toxic particulate matter and chemicals that increase people’s risk of cancers, respiratory illnesses, immune system problems, and other serious diseases. In the U.S., about 4.4 million people live within 3 miles of an incinerator, and 80 percent of those incinerators are located in BIPOC, low-income, and rural communities.

5. Plastics “Recycling” Means “Downcycling”

Even when some form of plastics recycling actually does happen, the term “recycling” is a misnomer. You may have noticed that many plastic items are imprinted with small numbers surrounded by three interlocking arrows. While many people associate those arrows and numbers with recycling, in reality they confer nothing about a plastic item’s actual potential to be recycled. Instead, the numbers are considered codes indicating what type of plastic an item is made from. These numbers in the chasing arrows give the public a false sense that all plastics are recyclable or may be recycled.

When collected, plastics marked with numbers 1 and 2 are more likely to be recycled—or rather, downcycled—which means making lower-quality plastic products from the “recycled” plastic. For example, number 1 plastic, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is a clear plastic used for many beverage bottles, and might get downcycled into things like fleece jackets and carpeting. Number 2 plastic is high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which is an opaque plastic used to make more rigid plastic containers like milk jugs. HDPE is downcycled into things like plastic lumber and picnic tables. Sometimes plastic number 5, polypropylene, or PP, which is used for many medium-weight opaque plastic containers like yogurt pots and shampoo bottles is downcycled into things like plastic crates and playground equipment—but like most plastics, it is more often landfilled.

Even when plastic is recycled/downcycled, which is not the case for most plastic waste, manufacturers mix in a large portion of freshly made plastic or toxic additives to melted down plastic waste to restore some of its desirable properties. Plastics are not made to be recycled, and their quality diminishes with each attempt. Recycling is also expensive, and requires huge amounts of infrastructure, equipment, water, and energy. Meanwhile, the value of truly recycled plastics—that is, plastic turned back into plastic, which has always been low—has plummeted even further as (thankfully) new regulations are tightening up on waste colonialism and injustice.

6. “Chemical or Advanced Recycling” of Plastics Really Means Melting or Burning

The plastic industry and the petrochemical industry which provides plastics’ fossil fuel ingredients continue to attempt to control the narrative around plastics and recycling. In addition to pushing plastics recycling as they always have, these industries are now also marketing so-called advanced, or chemical, recycling (a fancy name for burning plastics). It involves melting down plastics into more basic petrochemical products—including fuels that are burned for energy and release climate-warming greenhouse gases. This is not recycling.

The plastic and petrochemical industries have also leaned heavily on the ideas that enzymes may be able to break down plastics (which is incorrect, as they only accelerate the break up of plastics into hazardous particles), and that there’s huge value in all the plastic waste piled up in landfills, communities, and the environment (there isn’t). 

Throughout history, these industries have spent fortunes launching nonprofits with names that sound environmentally conscious and a heavy stream of media, instructional materials, and ad campaigns extolling the virtues of their recycling strategies, then and now. When one considers the facts, plastics “recycling” stops looking like recycling at all.

Conclusion: Plastics “Recycling” is Greenwashing

In a world where many of us have been told by parents and teachers to recycle plastic as children, or learned from public service announcements, ads, and other kinds of media as young adults, this may come as a surprise or even a shock. How can an activity we’ve been told is right, actually be wrong?

Many activities, organizations, and products bear a green sheen without any substance behind it, or oversell their positive environmental impacts—this is “greenwashing.” It’s a prime business strategy for corporations making and selling plastic. Greenwashing can look like a vague label with words like “green,” “eco-friendly,” “bio-based,” “ocean-bound plastic,” or “certified plastic neutral” slapped onto plastic items or packaging, or can be representative of an entire process—like plastic recycling itself. The plastic and petrochemical industries are also co-opting language used to describe real solutions—like “zero-waste” and “circular”—inaccurately, for their benefit, mainly to perpetuate the myth that is plastics recycling.

Behind the scenes as they extol the virtues of recycling and advanced chemical recycling, plastic and petrochemical industry trade groups pour money and energy into lobbying for legislation designed to erode protections on human and environmental health. Their end goal is to facilitate increased production of plastics, and they are achieving this by perpetuating misinformation and driving widespread pollution and injustice for their financial gain.

The Real Solution to is to Turn Off the Plastic Tap

Image courtesy of artist Ben Von Wong.

Only 9 percent of the plastics made since they were first mass-produced in the mid-1900s have been recycled. The recycling rate in the US, the world’s biggest plastic-waste producer, is presently a mere five to six percent. But even if plastic recycling rates were higher, recycling alone could never come close to solving the serious and wide-ranging health, justice, socio-economic, and environmental crises caused by industries’ continued plastic production and plastic pollution, which go hand in hand. Production of plastic has only grown over time, and has presently hit a rate of more than 400 million metric tons per year, more than double the rate at which plastics were made just 20 years ago. This is clearly a much more rapid pace than at which plastic recycling actually occurs.

It’s clear recycling is not enough to solve the plastic pollution crisis. The fossil fuel industry, governments, and corporations really need to turn off the plastic tap.