Portland, Ore. — Some state environmental officials trying to write regulations and laws around plastic waste say they struggle with a central question regarding chemical recycling. Is it a necessary savior for plastics recycling or a polluting technology that will distract from better solutions?
"There is a lot of passion around this topic," said David Allaway, a senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. "Some in the environmental community are opposed to any manifestation. Some in the industry promote it as necessary to achieve a circular economy."
The debate took center stage at a well-attended panel on chemical recycling at a recent conference of state environmental officials, hosted by the Product Stewardship Institute.
PSI, an organization mainly made up of government officials, advocates for extended producer responsibility laws for packaging, carpets, batteries and other products.
Some of the regulators there said governments were unsure how to view the technology.
"The state of Connecticut is agnostic on chemical recycling — we don't say it's great, we don't say it's terrible," said Tom Metzner, an environmental analyst with the state's Department of Environmental Protection. "We continue to assess as it evolves."
It's a hot topic for PSI. Last year the group released a framework report, "Making Sense of Chemical Recycling," as guidance for governments writing laws and making permitting decisions around the technology.
It's also been a hot topic in state legislatures.
Since 2017, 24 states have adopted laws favored by the plastics and consumer goods industries that define chemical recycling as manufacturing. Companies see it as a better regulatory path than treating the process as solid waste incineration.
But opposition to chemical recycling has also clearly popped up in legislative debates in California, New York and other states, as well as in Congress.
Connecticut is one of those states in the middle.
Metzner called chemical recycling an important but unresolved issue as the small, densely populated state is grappling with the decision in 2022 to close its biggest waste-to-energy garbage burning plant.
Connecticut is looking at extended producer responsibility laws for packaging to help it modernize its recycling infrastructure, better handle plastic waste and cut back on expensive exports of residents' municipal waste to other states, he said.
"Chemical recycling is a part of the conversation because it gets at the heart of what is recycling," Metzner said at PSI's 2023 Product Stewardship Forum, held Sept. 11-14 in Portland.
Echoing Allaway, he said Connecticut officials are weighing information from environmental groups who say the "environmental outcomes [of chemical recycling] are too bad compared to other processes," against industry who tell the state that if it's going to meet its goals for recycled content in plastic products, it needs policies favorable to chemical recycling.
"It's an important conversation," Metzner said. "It's not what killed EPR for packaging in our last session but it's something that has to be dealt with.
"We're trying to be pragmatic, we're understanding the evolving nature of chemical recycling, the heavy investment in it, its potential," he said. "But we understand the heavy environmental impact of plastics, its very low recovery."
Increasingly, panelists said, chemical recycling policy is playing a larger role in EPR debates in state capitols.