N.J. chemical recycling bill sets stage for industry’s battle with environmentalists

A plastic recycling company worker sorts out plastic bottles

A plastic recycling company worker sorts out plastic bottles collected for processing. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

New Jersey lawmakers are keying in on the future of plastic manufacturing and waste management. On Monday, a contentious bill that would ban polystyrene packaging and require plastic, glass and paper containers and carryout bags to be made with a percentage of recycled material, passed the Senate.

The bill (S-2515) would be among the most progressive recycled content rules in the country, and would complement the single-use plastic and paper bag ban that Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law last year.

But another measure introduced earlier this month would, according to leading environmental groups, be a huge step back in the state’s efforts to reduce its plastic waste output and greenhouse gas emissions, and to protect environmental justice communities.

That legislation (A-5803), authored by Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), focuses on a burgeoning technology known as chemical recycling, which employs a thermal process to convert industrial, commercial, agricultural or domestic plastic waste into additives for products like crayons, roofing shingles and even fuels.

“The first strategy of reducing plastic waste is reduction,” said Doug O’Malley, state director for Environment New Jersey. “If we’re investing money in creating more plastic pollution that’s a huge setback — we should be focusing on the recycled contents legislation.”

Rather than counterproductive, McKeon argues that his bill is simple and uncontroversial. Chemical recycling facilities, he says, are the end-receivers of plastic waste after it has passed through and been processed at municipal and county sorting centers.

New technology garners attention

“All my bill does is say that [chemical recycling facilities] don’t have to be licensed as solid waste companies, because that’s not what they are,” McKeon said. “They would just be the recipients of the product.”

Each year, the U.S. generates about 35.7 million tons of plastic waste — the highest rate in the world, by far. And yet only about 8% of that is recycled. Imagine standing over a trash bin with 36 eggs and managing to toss just three inside while the remaining 33 miss the bin and fall to the floor.

About 40% of the U.S.’s total amount of plastic waste, or 14.5 million tons, are lightweight items like clamshell containers, carryout bags, frozen food packets, drink labels, shrink wrap, prescription bottles and millions of other single-use products — all of which cannot be recycled. Instead, they are landfilled, incinerated or simply leaked into the environment.

While the field of chemical recycling — called advanced recycling by proponents — is still in early-stage development, it has garnered much attention from the plastics industry because its processes focus on this category of currently unrecyclable products.

“All of those kinds of plastics can go to and be processed at an advanced recycling facility,” said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, a trade association that represents about 100 chemical manufacturers and firms in the state. “They take them out of the waste stream and recycle them into new products.”

The most common form of the technology utilizes a thermal decomposition process, called pyrolysis, that super heats plastics to the point at which they transform into gases. Those gases are then captured and distilled, where they can be used to make different “feedstocks” — raw materials, such as plastic pellets, that manufacturers then use to create new products.

“A lot of people don’t realize it, but natural gas and oil are the building blocks of plastics, the feedstock that you make the plastics from,” said Hart. “So, if we recycle this material, that’s less natural gas and oil we need, meaning less fracking, less oil exploration.”

Chemical recycling bills across U.S.

Few industrial-scale chemical recycling facilities are in operation in the U.S. and none yet in New Jersey, but bills like McKeon’s are emerging in state houses everywhere. Currently, 12 states have adopted legislation favoring chemical recycling facilities, and, according to McKeon, there are some 60 licensed facilities in the U.S.

The reason is simple: In addition to appearing green, as well as a solution to what is an increasingly intractable crisis, the technology’s lead proponent, the American Chemistry Council, is also offering up eye-popping economic projections.

In a 2019 report, the council, which is a nationwide chemical industry lobby, estimated that the U.S. could support investment in 260 new advanced recycling facilities, which would create 38,500 jobs and almost $10 billion in economic output. The group claims some $5 billion of private sector money has already been invested in the technology.

Earlier this month, the San Francisco-based “waste solutions company” Brightmark LLC announced that it will begin building a $680 million, 5.3-million-square-foot chemical recycling facility in Georgia — the world’s largest. The company says the plant will divert 400,000 tons of plastic from landfills and incinerators each year.

But, at least for now, the promises far outweigh the proof.

Studies bring up concerns

In a 2020 report on the emerging chemical recycling industry, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a zero-waste advocacy group, found that, of the 37 facilities that had been proposed since the early 2000s, “only 3 are currently operational and none are successfully recovering plastic to produce new plastic.”

That same year, Greenpeace conducted its own study on the industry and found that much of the investment in chemical recycling is going into “waste-to-fuel” projects — the conversion of plastics to hydrocarbons — that only serve to exasperate global warming. The study also noted that the pyrolysis process is energy-intensive and also generates “significant quantities of carbon dioxide.”

“It is very difficult to find publicly available information to understand the final fate accountability of materials generated by these processes that would not end up as marketable fuel or plastic, including feedstock that can’t be converted, co-products like char or chemicals removed from the process, or greenhouse gas and volatile organic compound emissions,” the study’s authors wrote.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives report also raised myriad concerns about the sorting and cleaning of contaminated feedstock in chemical recycling facilities, as well as the management of toxins in handling and production processes. Additionally, there have been fires at two of the three operational facilities.

“The immaturity of the technology increases waste management costs and compliance risks associated with regulation of toxic emissions and byproduct disposal,” wrote the report’s authors.

Both Hart and McKeon conceded that, if McKeon’s bill were to pass as currently written, a regulatory gray area of sorts could emerge with regard to onsite storage of both plastic waste and any other solid byproducts.

“It’s a fair question,” McKeon said. “But, as a practical matter, what investor or company is going to want to turn their backyard into a salvage yard?”

‘This is not a clean process’

“This is not a clean process,” said O’Malley. “There are real worker safety concerns and, just as importantly, community health concerns.”

“The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection did raise that point to us, and it’s a good one,” Hart said. “We’re prepared to work with them to set some sort of guidelines on that.”

Despite the findings in the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and Greenpeace reports, Hart insists that the pyrolysis process of chemically transforming plastic waste produces no direct emissions. “There is no contact with fire; the only emissions are from a heat source,” he said. “And those emissions are no more than those you would get from a hospital or university with a heating boiler.”

McKeon echoed Hart’s assertion that the technology produces low emissions, and pointed out that his bill would have no influence on air quality regulations, nor would it have any influence on where any future chemical recycling facility could or could not be built.

“We’re in a state with the most restrictive environmental justice law in the country,” McKeon said. “There’s not a state in the Union that has more regulations as it relates to the environment than New Jersey. Until the DEP is comfortable with the bill, I’m not going to move it any further.”

“This is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent,” said O’Malley. “Yes, it’s just exemption from the siting process and also the county solid waste plans, but make no mistake, this would be a stalking horse for ultimately siting one of these facilities in New Jersey just as we are starting to turn the corner on reducing the amount of plastics in the state.”

What chemical recycling industry could bring to NJ

There is no doubt, however, that New Jersey is toward the top of the minds of potential chemical recycling companies. The state has been at the heart of chemical manufacturing in America for centuries.

Indeed, Brightmark, the company embarking on the $680 million super facility in Georgia, has already been searching for possible sites in the state, according to the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives report. New York and Pennsylvania are also included as potential locations.

To McKeon, the chemical recycling industry can offer New Jersey the opportunity to not only be at the forefront of a new era in chemical engineering, but also a leader in the fight to create a future where plastics — and the industries that create them — are more sustainable.

“You can be as aspirational as you want and say we’re just going to get rid of all plastics, but that’s not going to happen, not in my lifetime, not in my children’s lifetime — maybe my grandchildren’s, and I hope it does,” McKeon said. “I wish I was smart enough to say this is the solution, but I am certain that, at best, it is a part of the solution.”

For O’Malley and other environmental advocates, the solution to the plastic crisis cannot include more plastic.

“The plastics and petrochemical industry groups are pushing these types of bills all over the country under the guise that it’s helping the environment,” Judith Enck, a former regional U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, said in a recent state Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee hearing. “But in reality, the sole objective is to keep producing an unlimited amount of single-use plastic.”

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