Chemical recycling debates picked up steam in states this week, with environmental groups in Illinois pushing to limit a chemical recycling pilot program and Utah's governor signing industry-favored legislation to grow the technology there.
In Illinois, several groups held a news conference March 15 to stop legislation that would extend a pilot chemical recycling program in an industrial corridor where both ExxonMobil Corp. and Ineos have factories and have made moves to set up chemical recycling operations.
The legislation, House Bill 1616, does not name specific companies and potentially allows for multiple pilots in two counties, Will and Grundy, that are home to multiple chemical plants about 50 miles southwest of Chicago, according to Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.
"We don't know exactly which company wants to do this and it's not limited to only one pilot project," she told reporters in an online briefing. "There are a number of facilities that could do this."
In December, ExxonMobil said it was considering putting a chemical recycling plant in Joliet, the largest city in Will County. In 2019, Ineos announced plans for a polystyrene chemical recycling plant in Channahon, Ill., which straddles both counties.
As well, Nexus Circular LLC said last year it planned to open a chemical recycling plant in Chicago, and said it had a preliminary agreement to supply output from the plant to resin maker Braskem SA, which is an investor in Nexus.
The legislative background is nuanced.
HB-1616 would extend until 2027 a current pilot program for pyrolysis or gasification plants that started in 2019, when a predecessor law passed. It covers facilities processing uncontaminated plastic waste and specifically mentions polystyrene.
The current pilot program expires in 2025. The bill passed through a committee and could receive a vote in the Illinois House this month. Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governor's office.
Walling said environmental groups are skeptical of the need for the pilot permit law, since residents in the industrial corridor are already burdened by factory pollution and because chemical recycling plants could be approved through other permit processes.
"It would just need to follow normal environmental laws like other industrial users," she said. "They're not willing to go through that normal environmental process because it demonstrates how toxic this facility might be for Illinois."
But Mark Biel, CEO of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois, said any facility in the pilot zone has to meet the current permitting requirements for manufacturing plants.
Without the special permitting zone, the facilities would be regulated as waste facilities because they take in waste plastic, which CICI does not consider appropriate since they would be manufacturing resin.
"These facilities have to go through all the traditional permits of a normal manufacturing facility," Biel said. "They are not regulated any differently than any manufacturing facility."
CICI, which sponsored the original legislation in 2019, said it wants the two-year extension because the pandemic made companies skittish about spending more than $100 million needed for each factory. CICI calls the technology advanced recycling.
"Advanced recycling is going to happen," he said. "These facilities will be built all over the country. We would like some to be built in Illinois."
Walling said community concerns about plastic waste, chemical recycling and pollution have grown since the original law passed in 2019. The 2019 law began as a bill allowing pilot projects statewide but was limited to just the two counties before passing, Walling said. The national group Ocean Conservancy joined the media briefing.
The American Chemistry Council said HB-1616 would lead to more investment to clean up plastic waste.
"It's unfortunate that the Ocean Conservancy is trying to stop important capital investment in Illinois that will create jobs, keep more plastics out of the environment and advance sound environmental policy," said Matthew Kastner, director of media relations for ACC's plastics division.
HB-1616's sponsor, state Rep. Larry Walsh, D-Joliet, could not be reached.