A new report from Greenpeace says the plastics industry is overstating the potential of chemical recycling to address U.S. waste challenges and questions whether some of the technology should be considered recycling.
The Sept. 9 report from the environmental group takes aim at a prominent argument from the American Chemistry Council that there have been more than 50 new projects and $5 billion in investment in U.S. plastics recycling projects in the last three years.
The report is the latest chapter in an ongoing debate around the new recycling technologies and the kind of support chemical recycling should get from government policymakers.
But what sets the new Greenpeace report apart is it obtained a list of projects that ACC had assembled to calculate those figures.
The environmental group said it did a detailed review of the projects and argues that one-third of them are not likely to be viable.
Greenpeace said about one-quarter of them turn plastic waste into fuel, rather than recycling it back into new plastic. About half of the listed projects are upgrades to traditional recycling plants, not funding for chemical recycling.
"The American Chemistry Council, the plastics industry and the consumer goods sector need to stop hiding behind the fantasy of chemical recycling," said Ivy Schlegel, Greenpeace USA plastics research specialist and author of the report.
ACC's plastics division pushed back against the Greenpeace report in a statement, arguing that companies are making progress with chemical recycling, or advanced recycling, as it calls it.
ACC says that over the last three years, since the start of China's National Sword crackdown on plastic scrap imports, the private sector has invested $5.3 billion in new plastics recycling projects. ACC frequently mentions that figure in congressional and state testimony.
The investment includes both the advanced recycling technologies that break plastics down into molecular components to be reconstructed as fuels, new chemicals or back into same-as-virgin plastics, and traditional mechanical recycling that grinds and melts plastic without breaking molecular bonds.
"Greenpeace's recent report contains factual inaccuracies, ignores progress and dismisses ongoing investments supporting development of practical, real-world solutions to not only remove plastic waste from the environment, but to reuse that waste to create feedstock for new and useful products," ACC said.
"These projects are at various stages of development, but the sheer number of companies involved, dollars invested and facilities coming online demonstrate confidence in the advanced recycling [technologies]," ACC said. "In addition, new and growing demand from over 300 brands that have committed to using recycled plastics in their products and packaging helps to further strengthen the economic viability of these technologies."