US plastic makers encourage Congressional focus on advanced recycling

A Dec. 15 Senate subcommittee hearing sought solutions to postuse plastic.

In a Dec. 15 hearing, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice and Regulatory Oversight welcomed four panelists to examine and identify solutions to plastic waste.

Panelists included Dr. Pete Myers, founder, CEO and chief scientist for Environmental Health Services; Judith Enck, president of Bennington, Vermont-based nonprofit Beyond Plastics; Matt Seaholm, CEO of the Washington-based Plastics Industry Association; and Eric Hartz, co-founder and president of Atlanta-based plastics recycler Nexus Circular.

In and of itself, the hearing was viewed as an encouraging sign by the Washington-based American Chemistry Council (ACC), says the organization’s Vice President of Plastics, Joshua Baca, who lauds both parties in the Senate for addressing solutions that keep used plastic out of the environment.

Baca notes that “rapidly growing advanced recycling technologies offer a vital pathway toward achieving plastics circularity.”

“Continued investments in advanced recycling are key to promoting a circular economy for plastics,” he says.

Baca adds that Hartz’s testimony helped explain the advanced technology his company uses to recycle plastics that typically are not recycled through traditional processes, while also helping to clarify the distinction between advanced recycling and incineration.

During his testimony, Hartz said, “The used plastics we accept are not waste. They are materials that have been segregated from the waste stream and often bound for landfills. There are no odor issues where we operate. We do some light sorting for suitability. Almost all the used plastics we process meet the ISO 14021 definition of postconsumer plastics. We cover a broad array of plastics: polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and hard-to-recycle films.

“There is no burning, gasification, nor incineration, which all occur in the presence of oxygen and at much higher temperatures of 1,800 to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said. “Some mistakenly equate advanced recycling to incineration. Besides being three- to four- times hotter, incineration requires oxygen, whereas our process has none. Actually, our process would fail with oxygen present, since it would not yield sellable circular outputs.”

Baca says Hartz set out a clear, encouraging path to deploy technologies such as pyrolysis that can significantly increase the types and amounts of plastics that can be recycled.

“In addition, Hartz dispelled some of the inaccuracies around advanced technologies being spread by organizations that are unfamiliar with these technologies, including organizations at the hearing,” Baca says. “Unfortunately, companies that are actually recycling plastics must correct misinformation from those who are not.”

The recyclability of different forms of plastic has come into question recently, namely in an Oct. 24 report released by Greenpeace USA entitled “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again,” which concludes that most of the plastic generated in the U.S. cannot be recycled.

In the report, Greenpeace says no type of plastic packaging in the U.S. meets the definition of recyclable as outlined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy Initiative that calls for a 30 percent threshold “across multiple regions, collectively representing at least 400 million inhabitants.”

The report claims that the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene, two plastics most often considered recyclable in the U.S., fall below the initiative’s threshold. Moreover, Greenpeace says U.S. households generated an estimated 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, but only 2.4 million tons were recycled.

The organization has called for the adoption of the Global Plastics Treaty, which aims to significantly decrease plastic production and increase refill and reuse. It also has urged companies to take steps to phase out single-use plastics and commit to standardized reusable packaging.

Similarly, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Jared Huffman of California recently joined with Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California to introduce the Protecting Communities from Plastics Act (PCPA), which they say addresses the plastic production crisis.

The PCPA would establish stricter rules for petrochemical plants to safeguard the health of American communities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also targeting the chemical recycling of plastics. It would create new nationwide targets for plastic source reduction and reuse in the packaging and food service sectors.

During the Senate hearing, Seaholm said, “We appreciate the commitment of this committee to pursue solutions that reduce waste. There’s a saying in our industry: We love plastic. We hate plastic waste. The way we see it, any molecule of plastic material that leaves the economy is truly a waste. We need to collect, sort and ultimately reprocess more material. And that goes for all substrates, not just plastic.”

Seaholm outlined potential policy approaches for Congress to consider, including increased investments in critical recycling infrastructure to ensure that collection, sortation and processing can keep up with the complexities of all materials in the marketplace; promoting end-market development for the variety of plastic resins to ensure demand remains for recycled materials; and encouraging innovations in recycling technologies to ensure materials that cannot economically be recovered through traditional methods can still be recycled.