Washington — The head of a U.S. House science subcommittee is calling for a national strategy around plastics recycling.
Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., made the call to upgrade decades-old waste infrastructure and deal with new challenges like microplastics.
The April 30 hearing, titled "Closing the Loop: Emerging Technologies in Plastics Recycling," was the first U.S. House Science Committee hearing on recycling in a decade. It included calls for more federal research into chemical recycling to deal with hard-to-recycle plastics.
Lawmakers expressed concern that only 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the U.S. today, and hearing witnesses noted that even for the most widely recycled plastics like PET and high density polyethylene bottles, the rate is only 30 percent.
"Our recycling policies haven't kept pace with today's plastics use," Stevens said. "Our first response should be to reduce and reuse more. But it is not realistic to think we can give up disposable plastic altogether.
"We urgently need a national strategy to build out our country's recycling infrastructure. At the same time, we must invest in research and development of sustainable materials and processes as well as in standards," she said.
Stevens said the last major rewrite of federal waste policy was the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976, which she noted was enacted before she was born.
Lawmakers and witnesses said China's ban on imported plastic waste is raising costs for city recycling programs that had depended on export markets. But Stevens and others also said that China's ban could be an opportunity to improve domestic recycling.
Since it was a subcommittee of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee, several witnesses focused on R&D and how the federal government could support technology innovation, in this case chemical recycling.
That technology, which breaks polymers back down into oils and base materials to then be rebuilt into new polymers or converted to things like fuels, is seen as next generation recycling.
Advocates tout it as a way to reclaim complex plastic products that cannot be easily handled with mechanical recycling.
"Fundamental research will be really critical for enabling a new industry in the United States, using chemical recycling," Gregg Beckham, a senior research fellow at the National Bioenergy Center in Golden, Colo., told the hearing.
Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, said it was his sense from witnesses that "chemical recycling is probably ultimately how we get there," and he quizzed a Dow Inc. executive on how close those technologies are to commercialization.
Tim Boven, Dow's recycling commercial director for the Americas, packaging and specialty resins, said the technology is viable but work is needed on the economics.
He said systems are needed to collect and aggregate enough material, and industry has to then integrate finished products back into the petrochemical industry.
"We have to work on the business model side," Boven said. "We're talking about mature technologies like gasification and pyrolysis, they've been around for a long time [but] they've not been used widely for the purpose of recycling plastic."
Even with the push for chemical recycling, Boven told the lawmakers there's still a strong role for mechanical recycling.
"There is a relationship between mechanical and chemical recycling in the sense that we would suggest that if it can be mechanically recycled, it should be because there's a lower carbon footprint," Boven said. "It's not as energy intensive and it can be deployed locally."
But he noted a strong role for chemical recycling because up to 30 percent of the materials collected for recycling by cities ultimately have to be thrown out because they're too contaminated.
He said mechanical recycling has "significant limitations" handling contaminated materials and is more limited in finding end markets.
Boven urged Congress to play a role in seeing that pyrolysis and gasification technologies are defined as recycling. The American Chemistry Council is currently mounting a lobbying campaign in state governments to do that, although that push is being questioned by environmental groups and some lawmakers.
Boven said defining them as recycling would help industry certify to customers that they're using recycled content.
"We want to be able to certify what is recycled and give those to our customers so they are confident they are purchasing recycled materials, much like wind energy," he told lawmakers.
The hearing also delved into plastics pollution in the environment.
The chair of the full Science Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, noted a recent study that found Switzerland, a country she said had high recycling rates, had 90 percent of its river flood plains "contaminated with microplastics."
"While there is little research to date, we should be very concerned about the impact on human health of all of this microplastics in our environment and our food chain," she said.
The concerns were echoed by Stevens and other lawmakers.
The panel also heard that the federal government is spending $3.2 million to set up a plastics recycling research center at Troy University's School of Science and Technology, in Troy, Ala.