A new national recycling strategy released Nov. 15 by the Environmental Protection Agency is drawing praise from the plastics industry for giving a favorable nod to chemical recycling, but it also suggests EPA could be taking a harder look at plastics in general.
The American Chemistry Council, for example, said it welcomed the new EPA strategy because it "recognizes the potential of advanced [chemical] recycling technology to transform plastic recycling rates in the U.S."
Environmental groups criticized the agency for including chemical recycling, saying it amounts to incineration. And they said the EPA strategy is not strong enough on steps like bottle bills, taxes on virgin materials, recycled-content mandates and extended producer responsibility programs.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement that the plan, combined with recycling investments in the infrastructure plan signed Nov. 15 by President Joe Biden, will "help transform" recycling and solid waste management and meet the agency's goal of a 50 percent recycling rate by 2030.
"Our nation's recycling system is in need of critical improvements to better serve the American people," Regan said. The report was released on America Recycles Day.
The strategy, which is a Biden administration rewrite of a plan first unveiled at the end of the President Donald Trump's term, has language suggesting more focus on plastics is coming.
The report said that plastics will be one of at least five industries where EPA will write a more detailed sector specific plan, and it mentioned challenges around plastics repeatedly in the text. Other sectors getting deeper dives include food, concrete, cement and electronics.
As well, the strategy said EPA would examine product labeling and recyclability claims, including around plastic products, and it suggested more consideration to environmental justice issues for plastics.
The strategy report said EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council "highlighted that plastics are often not effectively recycled" and said the council raised concerns about the pollution impacts on communities where recycling facilities are located.
EPA said it revised the recycling strategy based on comments from NEJAC and others to strengthen environmental justice reviews for recycling and waste management factories.
While there's disagreement on whether the EPA report is strong enough, it lays out 22 policy areas it said it's interested in reviewing, including bottle bills, recycled content, EPR, national recyclability standards and taxes on virgin materials.
But the environmental group Beyond Plastics, which is led by a former EPA regional administrator, said the agency should have made those 22 points "the guts of the report," rather than a series of bullet points midway through.
"The sad reality is that when there is little or no federal leadership on waste reduction, recycling and composting of yard and food waste, it translates into more landfills, more incinerators and more plastics in rivers and the ocean," said Judith Enck, president of the NGO and a former head of EPA Region 2, which includes several Northeastern states.
"This report needed to identify the most promising strategies and then put each on a timeline and on a budget," she said. "There is still three years left in the Biden administration and an opportunity to do that."
ACC's plastics division said it welcomed the EPA report and said there's "significant alignment" between a five-point plan it unveiled earlier this year and EPA's strategy.
"This is particularly evident in the [EPA's] support of increasing domestic markets for recycled material, creating national recycling standards to reduce contamination and measure results more effectively, and enhancing recycling infrastructure," said Joshua Baca, ACC's vice president of plastics.
He called on Congress to pass a national standard for 30 percent recycled content in plastic products by 2030 and for a national producer responsibility system.
Baca also said chemical recycling will be "critical for achieving a more circular economy for plastics."
Getting favorable regulatory treatment for chemical recycling has been a key part of ACC's political strategy, because it sees the technology as key to boosting plastics recycling. The technologies use heat to break plastics down into monomers.
EPA said it heard many different opinions about chemical recycling but said it should be in the mix when crafting a more comprehensive U.S. recycling plan.
"All options, including chemical recycling, should be discussed when considering methods for sustainably managing materials," EPA said. "Therefore, chemical recycling is part of the scope of this strategy and further discussion is welcome."