IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

New Report Debunks Chemical Recycling’s False Promises to Manage Plastic Waste, Investigates All 11 U.S. Facilities

chemical recycling plant at night
Ahead of International Plastics Treaty Meeting in November, Groups Call for Reducing Plastic Production, Not More Toxic Recycling

Today, Beyond Plastics and IPEN (the International Pollutants Elimination Network) — two leading organizations committed to addressing plastic pollution — released “Chemical Recycling: A Dangerous Deception,” a critical examination of the technology’s long history of failure and the threats it poses to the environment, human health, and environmental justice. The report, funded by the Beyond Petrochemicals campaign, precedes the upcoming United Nations international plastics treaty talks, to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, from November 13 to 19, 2023.

Chemical recycling, or what the plastics industry often calls “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, and inevitably creates toxic substances. It is rarely successful in turning old plastic into new plastic.

While industry promotes chemical recycling as the solution to the plastics crisis, the report notes that only 11 chemical recycling facilities are constructed in the U.S., and combined they process just a tiny fraction of the nation’s plastic waste. The report includes detailed profiles of these 11 facilities, exposing their lack of progress, hazards to workers and communities, contribution to environmental racism, and financing. 

“For many of the same reasons why traditional recycling of plastics has been an abysmal failure, chemical recycling has also failed for decades. Plastic waste is expensive to collect, sort, and clean, and its variety of different chemicals, colors, and polymers makes it inherently too difficult to be made into new plastic products,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics and former EPA regional administrator. “This report reveals the truth hidden behind the plastic and fossil fuel industry’s misleading marketing campaign: Chemical recycling isn’t new, it has not worked for decades, and the few facilities that are operating are hurting the planet and people, particularly low-income communities and communities of color.”

Ms. Enck also noted, “Even if all 11 U.S. facilities were operating at full capacity, they’d handle less than 1.3% of the U.S. plastic waste. Chemical recycling is nothing more than another industry PR stunt to distract the public and deter policymakers from doing the one thing that can realistically curb the plastic pollution crisis: reduce plastic production.”

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.”

US map showing locations of chemical recycling plants

The report includes a foreword from Lewis Freeman, who served as vice president of government affairs for the Society of the Plastics Industry between 1979 and 2001. The publication’s release comes at a time when state governments are adopting laws that reduce environmental and safety regulations of U.S. chemical recycling facilities following heavy lobbying from the plastics and petrochemical industries. Over 20 states have now adopted deregulatory policies.

“Failure is the only constant among the 11 U.S. chemical recycling facilities, and the most significant thing being produced is pollution,” said Beyond Plastics deputy director and report contributor Jennifer Congdon. “Several of the U.S. facilities are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as large generators of hazardous waste, and the majority are located in communities of color, low-income communities, or both.” 

“Petrochemical pollution by any other name is still petrochemical pollution,” said Heather McTeer Toney, executive director of Beyond Petrochemicals. “Chemical recycling isn’t just oil; it’s snake oil. It doesn’t work and in fact hurts communities already dealing with pollution from the facilities manufacturing plastic and petrochemical products. This report makes it clear that chemical recycling is just a cute name for expanding the petrochemical industry. We cannot allow this industry to get away with this deception.”

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.

The two organizations held a virtual news conference on October 31, 2023, featuring Beyond Plastics’ Judith Enck and Jennifer Congdon and IPEN’s Lee Bell. A recording of the news conference can be found here. Read the report and a summary here.

About Beyond Plastics

Launched in 2019, Beyond Plastics is a nationwide project that pairs the wisdom and experience of environmental policy experts with the energy and creativity of grassroots advocates to build a vibrant and effective movement to end plastic pollution and promote alternatives to plastics. Using deep policy and advocacy expertise, Beyond Plastics is building a well-informed, effective movement seeking to achieve the institutional, economic, and societal changes needed to save our planet and ourselves, from the negative health, climate, and environmental impacts for the production, usage, and disposal of plastics.

About IPEN

IPEN’s mission is a toxics-free future for all. Its network of over 600 non-governmental organizations works in more than 125 countries to reduce and eliminate the harm to human health and the environment from toxic chemicals. Established in 1998, IPEN is the leading global network promoting policies to protect human health and environmental rights from the production, use, and disposal of toxic substances, especially in low- and middle-income countries.