Washington — A new federal government report is calling for national standards around a "mass balance" approach to measuring recycled content in plastics made from chemical recycling, saying it would help speed the development of markets and technology.
The February report from a panel at the National Institute of Standards and Technology lends some support to stronger mass balance rules, which are a key part of the American Chemistry Council's federal legislative agenda around plastic waste. ACC praised the report.
However, environmental and recycling groups say they are taking a nuanced approach to the NIST report. They see mass balance as a viable technical tool but say there are big, unanswered questions around how to regulate chemical recycling.
In a Feb. 15 statement, ACC supported NIST's recommendations and said mass balance could help meet the demand for food contact and pharmaceutical-grade recycled plastic. The group said it's important to have certifiable methods to account for recycled plastic.
"NIST's recent report highlights the need for a credible and transparent system to track recycled plastic used in new products and packaging produced by advanced recycling," said Joshua Baca, ACC's vice president of plastics. "America's plastic makers are supportive of these recommendations, which will help achieve a circular economy for plastics."
Baca said mass balance is "one of the most widely accepted certification systems used today" in other industries, including coffee making forestry, and agriculture.
Mass balance is an accounting tool that's been proposed for use in plastics recycling because polymers made from chemical recycling can be identical to those made with virgin resin, making it harder to track recycled content in products without better measurement tools.
Baca said the NIST report "pointed to the successful use of mass balance in other sectors and the opportunity to accelerate the advancement of chemical (advanced) recycling."
"A mass balance system would help meet demands for recycled plastic, especially for food- and pharma-contact packaging, and help meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's goal of a 50 percent recycling rate by 2030," Baca said.
The federal agency's report, called "An Assessment of Mass Balance Accounting Methods for Polymers Workshop Report," was the result of a three-day workshop NIST held in May.
The event was widely attended by plastics companies and associations as well as a few environmental NGOs and municipal recycling operations, according to a participant list in the report.
NIST made seven primary recommendations, including having the U.S. develop mass balance, or MB, standards, establish clear goals to move toward a circular economy for polymers, and expand both mechanical and chemically recycled polymers.
In particular, the agency called for the United States to "adopt a national strategy for the implementation of rigorous MB accounting methods for circular polymers to rapidly expand capacity and markets for recovered polymers, particularly in products which are difficult to reuse or recycle by other means."
As well, it said any standards should be transparent and data should be public.
"Otherwise, any approach is vulnerable to confusion and miscommunication across the supply chain in the best case, and claims/accusations of malfeasance or greenwashing in the worst case," NIST said.
It said mechanical and chemical recycling systems should not compete with each other for feedstocks, and it said any mass balance standard needs to address controversial topics like energy loss and fuels.