Report: Chemical Recycling Not Viable for Plastic Waste Management

Nov. 1, 2023
Two groups committed to addressing plastic pollution call for reducing plastic production, not more toxic recycling.

Beyond Plastics and IPEN (the International Pollutants Elimination Network) — two organizations committed to addressing plastic pollution — released “Chemical Recycling: A Dangerous Deception,” a critical examination of the technology and the threats it poses to the environment, human health and environmental justice. 

Chemical recycling, also known as “advanced recycling," refers to a set of technologies and processes that attempt to melt and boil waste plastics down to gasses, chemicals, oils, tars and waxes. According to the press release from Beyond Plastics, it is rarely successful in turning old plastic into new plastic.

The report notes that only 11 chemical recycling facilities are constructed in the U.S., and combined, they process just a fraction of the nation’s plastic waste, mostly into fuels. The report includes detailed profiles of these 11 facilities. 

Report findings reveal that, in addition to decades of failure, chemical recycling produces large quantities of hazardous waste, releases toxic air pollution, threatens environmental justice, and contributes to climate change. 

"Chemical recycling has failed for decades, continues to fail, and there is no evidence that it will contribute to resolving the plastics pollution crisis," said IPEN science policy advisor Lee Bell, the lead author of the report. "Chemicals in plastics make them inherently incompatible with a circular economy. We need to dramatically reduce plastic production and innovate for safer, toxics-free materials, not more false industry promises."

The report includes the following recommendations:

  • Declare a national moratorium on new chemical recycling plants.
  • Require extensive analyses and testing of existing chemical recycling plants’ toxic emissions, releases, waste residues, wastewater, output contamination levels, and fire and explosion risks.
  • Deny approval or permitting of chemical recycling plants if risks from their emissions or products (for example, fuels) exceed a one in 1 million excess public cancer risk.
  • Mandate testing of oils and other outputs from chemical recycling before they can be used as fuel or plastic feedstock to prevent widespread contamination of products and human exposure to unacceptable toxic risks.
  • End all federal, state, and local incentives for establishing chemical recycling plants, including public funds, subsidies, tax breaks, investment bonds, carbon credits, landfill diversion credits, and other schemes.
  • End siting of chemical recycling plants in environmental justice communities.
  • Prohibit plastic-to-fuel projects, which recreate (rather than displace) fossil fuels that pose dangers to the climate and the environment.
  • Implement the “polluter pays” principle and ensure that the petrochemical industry bears all financial risks of chemical recycling and the manufacture, use, and disposal of plastics.
  • Prohibit chemical recycling of any form to count toward recycling targets or recycled content goals in any public policy or program, including but not limited to extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs.
  • Prohibit use of free-allocation mass balance accounting in determining recycled content of products that incorporate chemical recycling outputs.

To view the report, key findings, and other materials, visit https://www.beyondplastics.org/publications/chemical-recycling.

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