Washington — Senators jumped into the chemical recycling debate at a recent hearing in Washington, with Democrats wondering if the technology needed more legislative controls and Republicans saying they saw it as innovation that could help reduce plastics waste.
A key senator on environmental policy, Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, for example, questioned industry representatives at the Dec. 15 hearing about whether chemical recycling of plastics could hurt the economics of mechanical recycling, if they both start competing for the same feedstocks.
"I've heard concerns from the plastics recycling community that increasing the number of chemical recycling facilities in the U.S. could hurt the financial viability of mechanical recycling facilities," said Carper, chairs of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which held the hearing.
"Can you identify any backstops in place to make sure that as chemical recycling grows, it does not take feedstocks from the mechanical recycling facilities," Carper asked Eric Hartz, president of Nexus Circular LLC in Atlanta. "And do we need for the government to provide those backstops?"
Hartz, who was one of two industry speakers on the panel, told Carper that chemical recycling, which is sometimes called advanced recycling, doesn't compete for the same materials, and should not.
Mechanical recycling, the more traditional technology that largely cuts and grinds plastics, should have priority, he said.
"It's generally just cheaper to mechanically recycle," Hartz said. "You shouldn't be doing advanced recycling if you can mechanically recycle. And we actually support that. The backstop is going to be the marketplace that allows for that to happen."
He said Nexus is particularly interested in plastic films as feedstocks for its process, noting that those materials are challenging for mechanical recycling to handle. He said Nexus wants those types of hard-to-recycle materials.
"Mechanical recycling is actually less work, if you will. There's some heat, you cut plastics up and you reform them," he said. "There's a lot of plastics that can go there. Those are not the plastics we seek."
Similarly, the head of a plastics trade association said both mechanical and chemical recycling, which he referred to molecular recycling, will complement each other.
"Our belief is it should be an all-of-the-above approach," said Matt Seaholm, president of the Plastics Industry Association. "In order for us to get where we want to go is it should be mechanical recycling and molecular recycling as part of the solution.
"Molecular recycling is better for purity when it comes to food contact. It is actually presenting us with some fantastic options," Seaholm said. "Our belief is the demand is going to be there and we support both types."