One of the fossil fuel and plastic industries’ favourite “solutions” to the plastic pollution crisis may finally be coming under greater scrutiny from the federal government.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, formally announced it was considering tighter regulations for pyrolysis and gasification — controversial processes that are associated with “chemical recycling.” Industry advocates have named these processes as key steps toward building a circular economy — one that minimizes waste — but environmental groups have called them an “industry shell game” meant to keep single-use plastics in production.

The problem, according to Denise Patel, regional co-ordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA, is that most of what the industry calls “chemical recycling” isn’t recycling at all. Rather than turning used plastic into new plastic products, chemical recycling usually involves melting plastic into oil and gas to be burned — the process is sometimes called “plastic to fuel.” Not only does chemical recycling not contribute to a circular economy, Patel said, but it also releases greenhouse gases that exacerbate climate change and hazardous chemicals that harm front-line communities.

“This technology hasn’t been sufficiently regulated by the EPA,” Patel said, adding that oversight is urgently needed to protect public health and the environment.

At present, the EPA doesn’t have a consistent definition for chemical recycling or its constituent processes, let alone a comprehensive framework for regulating it at the national level. The EPA’s Clean Air Act guidelines for solid waste incineration set standards for some types of pyrolysis — a process that applies high heat to waste under deoxygenated conditions to produce oil, gas, and char — but not others.

For instance, the pyrolysis of municipal waste must meet pollution standards — unless it takes place in a “plastics/rubber recycling unit” under certain circumstances. And for hospital and medical waste, the Clean Air Act says that pyrolysis doesn’t count as waste incineration at all.

What’s more, “the EPA has wavered,” said Jim Pew, an attorney for the non-profit Earthjustice, by not enforcing existing emissions standards for all chemical recycling facilities, in part by issuing exemption letters that let facility managers off the regulatory hook.

Advocates want the EPA to streamline this maze by categorically regulating chemical recycling as “solid waste incineration.” Such a move would help the EPA monitor and limit the release of hazardous substances from chemical recycling facilities — toxins like benzene, bisphenol A, and lead, which are associated with higher rates of leukemia, lung problems, and neurological damage, respectively. 

“It’s quite simple,” Pew said. “If you want to burn municipal waste, meet the Clean Air Act standards for municipal waste incinerators. If you want to burn industrial waste, meet the Clean Air Act standards for industrial waste.”


Read the full story at The Grist and learn about who is opposed to this new regulation.