Opinion: Time to Uncover the Toxic Legacy of Plastics Recycling
Opinion & Analysis
Blue bins have long been a symbol of reassurance for convenience-craving consumers across North America, offering citizens the comfortable belief that the disposables we put out on the curb every week will be safely put to “green” use. But as Alberta sets its sights on becoming “western North America’s centre for excellence for plastics diversion and recycling by 2030,” it might be time to throw an uncomfortable light on the actual benefits—and the true costs—of an industry that has too long been cloaked in smoke and mirrors.
Early last month, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government outlined its plastics recycling ambition in a preliminary Natural Gas Strategy and Vision geared toward getting the province “back to work.” Citing a study by Deloitte and ChemInfo Services Inc., the vision report claims that recycling 90% of Canada’s plastic waste would generate revenues between C$500 million and $3 billion by 2030, while creating 10,000 to 27,000 direct jobs. What it does not enumerate are the deep costs of committing Albertans to the “significant increase in advanced chemical recycling” that will be required to fulfill this ambition.
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Advanced chemical recycling of plastics is a profoundly energy-intensive process that generates a frightening array of known toxins and poses profound and multiple risks to public and planetary health. Recently, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) began to dig deep into the matter of plastics recycling—a matter around which there exists a great deal of industry-produced propaganda, and very little public education.
As GAIA is making clear through a series of reports, this lack of transparency is particularly true for advanced chemical recycling (sometimes referred to as simply either “advanced recycling” or “chemical recycling”), which involves using heat, solvents, or sometimes both to break down plastic into its constituent monomers or polymers for eventual reassembly into new plastics—or fuel.
Now in its 20th year of operations and comprising an international network of 800-plus NGOs and grassroots groups, GAIA has long taken a lead role in the fight for an environmentally just, sustainable world, from supporting the rights of waste pickers, to helping zero-waste activists in the Philippines secure a nation-wide ban on incineration, to the 2016 founding of the #breakfreefromplastic movement. Last year, the organization co-authored an exhaustive report on plastics and public health, in partnership with the Washington, DC-based Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL). This year, it followed up that release with a new report on the status, sustainability, and environmental impacts of chemical recycling. Together, the reports paint a shocking picture, making them a must-read for anyone who wants to pull back the curtain on the hidden costs of a material that has become truly ubiquitous.
Troubling Knowledge Gaps
In its chemical recycling report, GAIA offers a global review of the peer-reviewed science to date on the processes through which plastics are chemically broken down and reconstituted, with the putative goal of returning them to the “circular economy.” Their findings: we don’t know nearly enough, and what is known needs urgently to be shared with policy-makers and the public.
While the Kenney government speaks of Alberta becoming a “centre for excellence” in plastics recycling by the end of the decade, GAIA’s review of the science suggests this target date is wildly optimistic. What’s more, independent data is still hard to come by, leaving civil society and governments ill-equipped to critically assess a process that is being rapidly packaged and feverishly promoted as the solution to all our plastic waste woes—by the very entities that created those woes in the first place.
As for where chemical recycling technology currently stands, GAIA’s literature review again found that we just don’t know. “Proof of successful status (and failures) remains largely undisclosed outside of laboratory trials,” the report states. “And for the interested party, much will be found in theory but little or no substance given to practice.”
In another recent report on the U.S. chemical recycling industry, GAIA cautions that the term “chemical recycling”, as used by the petrochemical industry, frequently conflates plastic-to-plastic (P2P) and plastic-to-fuel (P2F) technologies—in order to frame the latter as a form of recycling.
Greenhouse Gases and Other Pollutants
Yet the plastics recycling industry continues to stumble over a number of daunting problems, GAIA reports. High on the list of headaches: to enable reprocessing, plastics must undergo complete depolymerization (breakdown), but this only occurs under extreme heat that is very costly to maintain. As well, applying extreme heat to plastic waste produces “secondary and tertiary synthesis of unwanted molecules”—including confirmed carcinogens like benzene, which CIEL notes has long been recognized as a “bone marrow poison,” and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which have been directly linked to lung cancer.
Also released when extreme heat is used to break down plastics are the often highly toxic chemicals that are added to various plastic products to increase their longevity, limit their toxicity, or boost their performance. These include:
• Antioxidants like cadmium to prevent degradation in oxygen or sunlight;
• Flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) because, as you might expect, plastics do not burn clean; and
• Plasticizers like chlorinated paraffin SCCP to maintain desired attributes like suppleness or elasticity.
The CIEL/GAIA report on plastics and public health places PBDEs and SCCP among the many chemicals added to plastics that have been named under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and therefore “subject to restrictions and bans.”
A further instance of nature’s laws thwarting industrial pipe dreams: experimental trials to see just how well plastics can be recycled into fuel have revealed that the resultant oil is decidedly subpar, producing “greater quantities of pollutants, with higher nitrogen oxides, soot, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide emissions in comparison to diesel.”
While promoters of advanced chemical recycling assert the sustainability of the process, GAIA’s review of the available literature is unequivocal: “Plastic depolymerization requires large energy inputs, so no chemical recycling technology can offer a net-positive energy balance, even if the products/byproducts are burned for energy.” Behind these “discordant claims” may be the fact that “technology providers often omit the large amounts of auxiliary energy necessary for pre-treatment (sorting, cleaning, and shredding the plastic) and post-treatment product conditioning and clean-up—these are almost never taken into account in energy and cost audits.”
Some P2F producers say their fuel has a much smaller carbon footprint—GAIA cites assertions by Norway’s Quantafuel that its product reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 90% compared to conventional fossil fuels. But the organization says those claims have not been independently verified.
‘Red Tape Reduction’
Prominent in Alberta’s Natural Gas Vision and Strategy is a figure showing the three new target areas (liquefied natural gas, hydrogen, and the “plastics circular economy”), in orbit along with the established sectors (petrochemical manufacturing and general industry) around a central circle, which represents the province’s wealth of natural gas. Also part of the graphic: brief statements clearly intended to highlight factors that are necessary to further the fortunes of each sector (LNG, for example, will require “intergovernmental partnerships”, which couldn’t possibly mean an increase in Canada’s already lavish fossil subsidies). Strikingly, the Kenney government explicitly singles out “red tape reduction” as key to accelerating the so-called plastics circular economy.
That focus collides with the serious health and environmental risks of plastics recycling. But the GAIA report cites a “general lack of consideration given to reporting on emissions and byproduct toxicity in reports that describe both lab and pilot-scale experiments.” Why such a significant oversight? According to GAIA, it may owe to “a prevailing joint academic/industry competitive funding landscape that encourages a focus only on positive ‘selling points’.”
Anxious though the Kenney government may be to create a positive investment environment, skimping on things like environmental reviews will not end well. More regulation, not less, is urgently needed to protect the ecosystem and public health—and ultimately, as Alberta is finding out with fossil fuels and pipelines, the province’s own reputation for clean production.
But that doesn’t seem to be what Alberta means by “best-in-class regulation”. The province’s plan for plastics reads a bit like a script that involves a fox and a henhouse—particularly in the way it envisions the “plastics recycling” sector reciprocally linked to the well-established petrochemical industry. Where “red tape reduction” is flagged as critical to the emergence of plastics recycling, a “best-in-class regulatory system” is seen as essential to the petrochemical sector’s continuing success.
The general public and astute investors alike will want details on this proposed regulatory system, in a province where the current bar is set extremely low. Looking southeast of Alberta’s border to the now well-established eastern North American “centre for excellence in petrochemicals” in places like the aforementioned (and infamously polluted) St. James’ Parish—aka “Cancer Alley”—should cause anyone, policy-makers included, to recoil. If this is “best-in-class,” then “best” is a negligent failure at best.
Why Bank on Plastics Recycling?
So, why rely so heavily on plastics recycling? The obvious answer might be: “Take a look at the oceans!” But it isn’t that simple.
Yes, the oceans need to be brought back from the plastic waste that humans continue to disgorge into their waters every day. And as an increasingly alarmed and heartsick public demands more of both policy-makers and industry, recycling, it seems, must be part of the solution. But a brief look at a report earlier this year by the New York-based investment firm Closed Loop Partners raises some questions about what’s going on on the frontiers of plastic “recycling”.
Closed Loop reports that plastic-to-fuel technologies are far further along the road to operational status than plastic-to-plastic, with the latter still at least some 18 years away from maturity—far beyond the 2030 goal heralded by the Kenney government. The report also notes that there is already “money to be made” with P2F, with the production of plastics-derived fuels currently guaranteeing profit margins of between 60 and 70%.
As with the Alberta gas strategy report, the graphics are revealing. On page 21 of its report, Closed Loop breaks down the annual US$120 billion in “combined addressable market” predicted by industry analysts in a chart that shows $56 billion in “monomers and intermediates” like ethylene and styrene, $47 billion in polymers like polyethylene and PET, and $17 billion in refined hydrocarbons like naphtha and propane (both targeted for use in plastics production). A sidebar to the graphic explains that the “$120 billion addressable market reflects those outputs that have a pathway back to plastics [emphasis added]. However, including other outputs, such as diesel and gasoline, jet fuels, and liquid oils, would significantly increase the market opportunity.”
With much of the money currently being made by plastics recyclers still coming from those “other outputs”, that language suggests that the industries loudly declaring their interest in making plastics part of a “circular economy” still have a great deal invested in fossil-fueled linearity.
Different Visions of a ‘Circular Economy’
The Closed Loop report opens with a brief survey of the “lay of the land” for plastics. “In the U.S. and Canada, current recycling infrastructure recovers less than 10% of post-consumer plastics, and today’s supply of recycled plastics meets just 6% of real demand,” it states, all while our landfills and oceans overflow with plastic waste. Likewise looming on the company’s radar is that corporations like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, feeling the heat from public pressure, “are making commitments to use more recycled plastics in their products and their packaging, and to reduce their carbon emissions.”
The report also points to the apprehension leaders of petrochemical and plastics companies are feeling about “being blamed for contributing to the problem or left out of the picture,” leaving them anxious for the arrival of market-ready “transformational technologies” that keep plastics “in play”.
Closed Loop does assert the need to reduce marine pollution. But the primary source of anxiety appears to be that, “without a bold shift in approach, the mismanagement of plastics waste will worsen, resulting in the loss of valuable materials and missed opportunities to recover and harvest the value of these resources”.
Through that lens, the primary role of a circular economy is to reduce waste in order to extract value. Closed Loop’s catalogue some 60 technology providers “developing innovative solutions to purify, decompose, or convert waste plastics into renewed raw materials” suggests that accounting for the waste still left over after that value has been extracted is not yet a priority.
Entities like GAIA and CIEL clearly understand the idea of a “circular economy” for plastics in very different terms. As most citizens might expect, they’re campaigning to keep the material and its associated toxins out of the environment entirely.