The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to require plastic packaging to have at least 15 percent recycled content to be part of the agency's Safer Choice ecolabel program, but the proposal is running into resistance over how EPA should treat chemical recycling technologies.
The agency is proposing the new requirement for 15 percent recycled content as it updates its Safer Choice program, which aims to help consumers identify less toxic or better-for-the-environment products.
But a dozen mostly Democratic state attorneys general and more than 20 environmental groups are separately urging EPA to crack down on chemical recycling in the labeling program, saying that recycled plastic made with technologies like pyrolysis should not be included.
EPA first proposed the update in November, saying it wanted to strengthen the sustainable packaging requirements in Safer Choice by requiring recycled content in plastic, glass, metal and paper packaging, with levels between 15 and 50 percent. Plastic would have the lowest level.
But the coalition of 12 state attorneys general, in comments released Jan. 17, want the agency to go further and either ban plastic packaging within Safer Choice or, if EPA does allow plastic packaging, they want the ecolabel program to exclude plastic made with chemical recycling.
The states said plastic waste can contain harmful impurities like lead and fluorinated compounds, and they said chemical recycling is inefficient, potentially destroying 86 percent of plastic waste to make new materials, pointing to a U.S. Department of Energy study.
By contrast, they said mechanical recycling of plastic retains at least 73 percent of the material.
The group, including attorneys general from California, New York and Oregon, highlighted concerns over impurities in recycled plastic.
"Recycled plastic production can require additives to improve the quality of the plastic. Some of these additives are more toxic than those used in virgin plastic production," the attorneys general said. "Toxics and contaminating wastes leach into plastic during all stages of its life cycle, and these toxins are then recycled into new plastic."
Similarly, more than 20 environmental groups are urging the agency to not allow what's called a "mass balance" approach to measuring recycled content in packaging made with chemical recycling technologies.
But getting regulators to accept mass balance has been a key priority for the plastics industry and some consumer product companies, which argue that chemical recycling and mass balance methods of measuring recycled content will be needed to get to the kind of volumes of recycled plastic they need, particularly in food packaging.
Some U.S. government agencies have agreed.
A 2022 report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, for example, called for the federal government to develop mass balance standards for chemical recycling of plastics, to speed the development of the technology.
Advocates for mass balance say it's used in agriculture and other industries and they say it's valuable for tracking recycled content across complex supply chains where recycled material can be measured in aggregate within a batch, if not in a specific product in a consumer's hands.
The American Chemistry Council called it a “well-established accounting method” that’s been used for decades in renewable energy and for fair trade cocoa and coffee, and it pointed to statements endorsing it from groups like the Rainforest Alliance.
“It is the widely accepted method that would help incentive the use of recycled content over traditional raw material sources, such as oil or natural gas,” ACC said.
The plastics group said chemical recycling, which it calls advanced recycling, takes harder-to-recycle plastics like flexible films and breaks them down into plastic building blocks to make new products.
But the environmental groups, including Just Zero, the Last Beach Clean Up and Beyond Plastics, said in a Jan. 16 statement that mass balance is an "artificial credit scheme."
"We need real solutions to address plastic pollution; not more greenwashing," said Peter Blair, policy and advocacy director at Just Zero. "If the EPA approves this approach, they'll be giving the plastic industry exactly what they want — a new way to lie to consumers while they continue to churn out toxic and unrecyclable single-use plastic.
"It would be entirely deceptive to brand a bag of coffee as '100 percent decaffeinated' when only 1 percent of the beans in the bag have been decaffeinated," Blair said. "The same logic applies to plastic packaging.
"It is deceptive and misleading to allow companies to claim their plastic packaging is made from '100 percent circular' or '100 percent recycled plastic' when the physical content of the packaging is only composed of 1 percent recycled plastics," he said. "Yet, this is exactly what companies will do if the EPA approves this change."
The groups said the EPA proposal does not explicitly mention mass balance but it references certifications like the Recycled Material Standard from the group GreenBlue that include a mass balance approach.
The attorneys general said EPA should not rely on external certification programs, specifying the RMS from GreenBlue, and instead should develop its own recycled-content certification program.
Chemical recycling has been a flashpoint in other new regulations being considered by the federal government, including in debates over the Federal Trade Commission's plans to update its Green Guides and what kind of environmental marketing would be allowed for products made with chemical recycling.
The comment period for the Safer Choice proposal closed Jan. 16, but the publicly accessible website where the federal government posts comments did not appear to be fully updated, with access only available to 21 of an estimated 90 comments on Jan. 18.
In a brief statement, the American Chemistry Council said it submitted comments to EPA, where it argued that some of the proposals would duplicate already established programs.
"In submitted comments to the EPA, ACC provided feedback on several of the proposed changes to the Safer Choice and [Design for the Environment] certification programs," ACC said. "The Agency's attempt to include a singular approach to recyclable packaging in the Safer Choice Program is not appropriate. This will result in a duplicative use of already established programs better suited to address recycling content qualifications such as Section 6002 of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act."