Recycling, once seen as a key environmental priority, has seen its star fall in recent years, with many localities eliminating or scaling back programs after the foreign countries that once accepted much of their plastic, paper and aluminum waste began to refuse or curtail new shipments.
The biggest turning point was China’s 2018 announcement of its “National Sword” policy banning the importation of plastics and other recyclables. That decision brought home to Americans the volume of plastics being produced — almost 36 million tons that year in the U.S. alone, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — while turning focus toward the domestic recycling industry, which repurposed only 8.5 percent of that plastic. The remainder was burned or landfilled.
Now the plastics and recycling industries are looking toward a new solution: chemical recycling, often called advanced recycling. Nine states to date have passed laws recognizing the fledgling industry and differentiating it from solid waste management.
Virginia is on the precipice of a similar move, which would build on a little-noticed measure passed by the General Assembly last year granting advanced recycling companies tax credits and exemptions. This year, the Virginia Manufacturers Association and American Chemistry Council are pushing for new changes to state code that would add a range of definitions related to advanced recycling, ultimately leading to its classification as a manufacturing rather than solid waste enterprise.
But as the bills began to move through the committee process, it quickly became evident that many lawmakers didn’t know what advanced recycling — or pyrolysis, or solvolysis, or depolymerization, other terms that would be defined by code — is or what it involves.
Here’s six things to know about the industry:
1. Advanced recycling relies on chemical rather than mechanical processes.
“Advanced recycling” is an umbrella term used to describe the conversion of plastics that have already been used into their fundamental chemical building blocks, which can then be used to develop new plastic-based products or fuels.
“This is not combustion,” said Craig Cookson, director of sustainability and recycling for the American Chemistry Council, a chemical company trade group. “This is a chemical process where you’re taking plastics and you’re converting them into a new usable commodity.”
On the most elementary level, the process involves putting shredded plastics into an oxygen-free vessel that is heated until the plastic melts and vaporizes. Its constituent parts can then be separated out to become fuel, waxes and lubricants, and what’s known as “feedstocks,” the basic materials used to manufacture other plastics and chemicals.
Chemical recycling, said Cookson, isn’t a replacement for our existing (mechanical) recycling processes but instead is complementary. Many plastics, particularly those used to package food like resealable pouches, are unable to be recycled using traditional methods but can be repurposed using chemical ones. An Oregon company, Agilyx, has told investors that while current mechanical processes are typically capable of recycling about 10 percent of all material they receive, its chemical approach could recycle as much as 90 percent.
2. The industry is still very young.
Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm that focuses on the circular economy — economic activity that aims to repurpose and reuse materials and resources rather than discarding them — pegs the number of North American advanced recycling projects in the “early commercial” stage of development at just over two dozen.
A handful of these projects are in operation: the Agilyx plant in Tigard, Ore., is perhaps the best known. In Georgia, a Nexus Fuels plant in Atlanta says it is processing 50 tons per day of plastics.
Many others, though, still haven’t been fully completed. Construction on Fulcrum Bioenergy’s Sierra BioFuels plant outside Reno, Nev., for example, is underway, while Brightmark, in Ashley, Ind., is operating but doesn’t expect to reach full-time production until later in 2021.
Closed Loop estimates the potential of the industry to be as much as $120 billion in the U.S. and Canada, a figure touted by advanced recycling advocates during committee hearings last week. Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, who is carrying one of this session’s advanced recycling bills, House Bill 2173, during hearings emphasized the economic development possibilities of the industry, touting its ability to turn excess waste “into a usable commodity.”
Evaluating the accuracy of the industry’s forecasts, however, will take time. The economics of sourcing plastics and bringing nascent projects up to full commercial scale are still largely unproven.
3. Advanced recycling already has a foothold in Virginia.
One advanced recycling plant has already committed to Virginia. In June, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration announced Braven Environmental would invest $31.7 million to set up a chemical recycling plant in Cumberland County. The project, which received $215,000 in grants from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund and the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, is expected to create 52 jobs.
Brett Vassey, president and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, told lawmakers that “we believe five more facilities can be built in Virginia using these various technologies if we send this signal that we want this in the commonwealth.”
The estimate, he told the Mercury in an email, was based on supply radius: “These facilities have to be close to supplies,” he wrote. “They also generally have a 150-mile supply radius. If you do the overlay on Virginia, it is a reasonable assumption that the commonwealth could sustain five more facilities.”
While new plants will provide new jobs, tax revenue will be limited. The General Assembly’s 2020 advanced recycling bill, sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, would exempt certain machinery and equipment used in advanced recycling from state sales tax and grant such companies an income tax credit. The law also made advanced recycling machinery and tools a separate class of personal property that localities are prohibited from taxing at a higher rate than other classes. A fiscal impact summary from the Department of Taxation found that the sales tax exemption “would have an unknown negative state and local revenue impact,” while the local provision “would have an unknown impact on localities.”
4. The Virginia bills being considered this year would classify advanced recycling as a manufacturing, rather than solid waste, industry.
Plum’s HB2173 and its companion, Sen. Hanger’s Senate Bill 1164, have a primary purpose of classifying chemical recycling facilities as manufacturing rather than solid waste concerns.
“This bill would clarify that this activity is not solid waste,” Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor told the House Subcommittee on Natural Resources Wednesday. Vassey of the Virginia Manufacturers Association similarly told lawmakers on the subcommittee that main goal of the bill is to provide “clarity on what type of processes these manufacturers are using and how they are characterized as manufacturers, not as solid waste operators.”
“The reality is that these technologies are not incineration,” he said. “Specifically, that’s why we are doing these bills. We do not want any of these advanced recycling technologies to be considered in the solid waste or in the waste management business.”
DEQ did not respond by to several inquiries to clarify whether the legislation would mean that a chemical recycling facility would not need a waste permit from the state to operate. Paylor told lawmakers that while DEQ has no position on the bill, it “certainly (has) no concerns.”
5. Some see advanced recycling as a bridge solution to the United States’ glut of plastic waste.
Both the industry and some environmentalists are touting advanced recycling as a way to deal with the United States’ mountains of plastic waste.
Vassey said the Virginia Manufacturers Association believes advanced recycling will result in less plastics production overall.
“The more advanced recycling plants process a diversity of raw materials, the less virgin materials we need for production,” he said. “It also means that we could be extending the life of landfills because these materials would not be wasted.”
Plum said the industry is one tool in a toolbox of solutions to reducing plastic waste.
“I’m no plastic lover. I’d like to see us find a way to eradicate plastic. This comes as close to anything I know to do that,” he told the Natural Resources Subcommittee in response to questions from Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, about whether the industry could lead to unintended consequences in the form of continued overproduction of plastics. “What we’ve got is an interim problem. … And I think it would be foolish for us not to recognize this is a reasonable alternative for dealing with a major problem we have in terms of the plastic we already have in our communities.”
6. Others are more skeptical, saying advanced recycling merely justifies more production of plastics.
Not everyone is on board. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, an environmental network that has been deeply critical of the fledgling industry, has described advanced recycling as a “distraction” rather than a solution.
“Under the guise of ‘chemical’ or ‘advanced’ recycling, the industry is lobbying for and advancing development of plastic-to-fuel (PTF) facilities that will only make the plastic crisis worse while diverting public and private investment dollars away from real solutions,” a summer 2020 report by the group concluded.
Zach Huntington, a program manager with environmental nonprofit Clean Fairfax, contended that chemical recycling is “addressing a symptom without getting to the cause”: overproduction of plastics.
Plastics that are reconstituted into fuel through advanced recycling still produce greenhouse gases, he pointed out, and emissions from facilities that transform used plastics into new materials are still largely unknown.
One July 2017 American Chemistry Council report concluded advanced recycling facilities would produce fewer harmful emissions than other common sources of air pollution. (Cookson said that while the council is in the process of updating the study, those findings are still “an accurate picture” of emissions.) Like all manufacturing facilities, they also are subject to state air and water regulations, a point emphasized by Del. Plum during hearings on his bill.
But the scarcity of fully operational chemical recycling facilities has led to a paucity of independent studies: “There is basically no outside peer-reviewed research of actual chemical recycling facilities,” said Huntington.
Skepticism also stems from an investigation by National Public Radio and Frontline that was released this September detailing how the plastics industry had promoted recycling for decades as a public relations move while knowing that little of the plastic being produced could be recycled.
During hearings last week, Hudson directed much of that skepticism toward the Virginia Manufacturers Association, which she said “struggles with some credibility in my mind when it comes to attesting about the safety of plastics and plastic pollution.”
“All the people who have a financial stake in the industry testified in favor of the bill. The only environmental group testified against,” she said during a later committee hearing. “I confess I did not feel as though my understanding of the science was appropriately resolved.”