An Environmental Protection Agency proposal asking how it should regulate key chemical recycling technologies is drawing a warning from a plastics industry group: Treat it like a normal manufacturing process or risk undermining attempts to improve recycling.
On Sept. 8, the EPA opened formal rule-making on the topic, noting that it's getting more questions about the technologies, "especially with respect to plastics recycling," and that it's finding "considerable confusion" among regulated companies.
It could be a thorny debate, though, because chemical recycling is both a key part of the plastics industry's plans for boosting recycling rates and strongly opposed by environmental groups.
Groups like the American Chemistry Council want EPA to treat permits for the facilities as manufacturing operations, rather than under what they say are more onerous Clean Air Act rules for solid waste incinerators. ACC has been pushing for that point of view in state legislatures around the country and since 2017 has helped pass laws in 14 states regulating them as manufacturing facilities.
But environmental groups have been pushing back, arguing for tighter regulations.
Most prominently, they launched an initiative in December, the Presidential Plastics Action Plan, that presented President Joe Biden's administration with a laundry list of executive actions it could take on its own around plastics policy. That list included denying federal permits for new gasification and pyrolysis plants as well as "facilities that repolymerize plastic polymers into chemical feedstocks for use in new products or as fuel."
But ACC, in a Sept. 27 statement, said the technologies need to be regulated as manufacturing because they produce a product, recycled resin, in processes that do not involve incineration.
ACC said advanced recycling, as it calls the technologies, is "essential" to meeting its goal of all plastic packaging having 30 percent recycled content by 2030, part of a new legislative plan it unveiled in July.
"Regulating advanced recycling as solid waste incineration ... would invoke onerous and inappropriate permitting requirements, severely hampering states' ability to modernize and expand plastics recycling to meet the 2030 goal," the group said.
Joshua Baca, ACC's vice president of plastics, said in a Sept. 29 interview that pyrolysis and gasification will be important for building new recycling systems that can handle materials that weren't widely used when programs were first built several decades ago.
"I think it's easy to say that recycling has failed, [but] at the same time have we provided the proper incentives for it to modernize?" he said. "I think the answer is unequivocally no."