Congressional Democrats want EPA to take tough line on chemical recycling

Washington — Arguments over how to regulate chemical recycling are heating up in Congress, with 25 Democratic lawmakers urging the Environmental Protection Agency to take a skeptical approach toward the technology.

The lawmakers, led by California Reps. Jared Huffman and Alan Lowenthal, sent a letter in recent days urging the House committee that controls EPA spending to make it clear that Congress wants the agency to limit chemical recycling.

The American Chemistry Council, however, said the letter mischaracterizes advanced recycling technology, as ACC refers to it, and the regulatory approach that's needed.

"Characterizing advanced recycling as 'waste combustion' or 'burning plastics' is scientifically inaccurate and distracts from the real and significant progress being made," said Joshua Baca, ACC's vice president of plastics. "The seven commercial-scale advanced recycling facilities, plus those leveraging existing chemical manufacturing infrastructure to make virgin-quality plastic from used plastics in the U.S., are just the beginning of a massive wave of new projects."

The letter from the lawmakers will not have a direct impact on regulations, and it's far from certain it will ultimately be part of the federal budget, even in a Democratic Congress.

But supporters say it points to stepped up interest on Capitol Hill.

"This letter shows that there is a strong and growing base of legislators that see the connection between plastics, climate, and environmental justice and recognize that the issue of chemical recycling ties all of these critical pieces together," said Anja Brandon, U.S. plastics policy analyst at Ocean Conservancy.

The environmental group released the letter May 2.

The letter comes as EPA is currently in the middle of its own rulemaking on the question, and as the plastics industry has been advocating in state legislatures for new laws it says are more favorable for advanced recycling,

Specifically, the industry has been lobbying states to change laws so that the facilities are regulated as manufacturing plants, rather than solid waste facilities as is common now. Eighteen states have adopted the industry's approach in the last five years, including four so far this year.

"Regulating advanced recycling as solid waste incineration would be inconsistent with Clean Air Act legal criteria and the 18 states that have passed laws appropriately regulating these facilities as manufacturing operations," Baca said.

"Furthermore, it would undermine EPA's National Recycling Goal to increase the U.S. recycling rate to 50 percent by 2030," he said. "America's plastic makers will rely on advanced recycling to help EPA meet its goal."

But the letter from the Democratic lawmakers makes it clear that they want EPA to continue to regulate them as waste facilities, and they want the agency to look at the climate and environmental justice impacts of the plants on surrounding communities.

"Chemical recycling does not represent a viable path forward to achieving a circular economy," the letter said. "In fact, it could distract us from implementing much-needed solutions to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and improve waste management and recycling systems."

Specifically, the Democratic lawmakers want their colleagues who control EPA spending to include language in next year's budget noting specific concerns about chemical recycling as a technology to handle plastic waste.

Ocean Conservancy said it sought the letter in Congress to counter the industry's lobbying campaign. One of the two chief authors of the letter, Rep. Lowenthal, is also a lead sponsor of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act.

OC also said that President Donald Trump's administration in 2020 sought to remove pyrolysis, one of the technologies used in chemical or advanced recycling, from municipal solid waste combustion regulations under the Clean Air Act.

"Burning plastics emits greenhouse gases and countless toxic chemicals and incentivizes industry to continue unfettered plastics production instead of investing in a working recycling system," Brandon said.

"To keep plastics out of our ocean, we need to make less plastic, and better recycle what we already have; expanding chemical recycling will kill any chance we have of accomplishing either," she said.

But ACC said that since 2017, there has been $7.5 billion in announced investments in the technologies in the United States, and it pointed to studies showing that advanced recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions 43 percent compared to waste-to-energy incineration of plastic films made from virgin materials.

It also said that advanced recycling operations have emissions on par with hospitals and universities.

"From Wendy's to Warby Parker, advanced recycling is being used to make plastic consumer products from the hard-to-recycle plastics mechanical recycling cannot process," Baca said. "We urge lawmakers and the EPA to follow the science and reject the false claims that advanced recycling is 'waste combustion,' and we invite them to visit an advanced recycling facility to get the facts in person."

» Publication Date: 03/05/2022

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