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Image courtesy of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, "Chemical Recycling: Status, Sustainability, and Environmental Impacts"

Fossil Fuels

Louisiana Passed Legislation To Allow For Chemical Recycling, AKA “Advanced Recycling”

Louisiana has unanimously passed a bipartisan bill, Senate Bill 97, that will allow for advanced recycling. This term, “advanced recycling,” is a bit deceptive. Its more common term, “chemical recycling,” sounds ideal — recycling plastics instead of making more, right? Not necessarily.

Chemical recycling is any process by which a polymer is chemically reduced to its original monomer form. This enables it to be processed or re-polymerized and remade into new plastic materials. Another form of this is pyrolysis, which is known as “plastics to fuel.” Non-recycled plastics from garbage are turned into synthetic crude oil that can be refined into diesel fuel, gasoline, heating oil, or even waxes. That water bottle you’ve thrown away could be turned into fuel. This isn’t a 100% bad thing, but it’s not purely good either. It’s a step down from traditional fossil fuels.

SB 97 wasn’t a favorite of environmental advocates since this process is still unproven and will result in greater pollution in communities where these chemical recycling facilities are located. The Louisiana Illuminator noted back in June that many petrochemical companies were in favor of the legislation. Shell, ExxonMobil, the lobbying group Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) all supported the legislation.

ACC Vice President of Plastics, Joshua Baca, thanked Senator Eddie Lambert and Representative Jean-Paul Coussan for their sponsorship of the bill. ACC also announced that the new law will help fuel demand for recycling programs and centers while reducing plastic waste in Louisiana’s waterways. It will also create new jobs and encourage more investment in chemical recycling facilities.

“Advanced recycling technologies enable recyclers to reuse hard-to-recycle materials that otherwise would go to waste, reducing the demand for new resources,” the ACC stated. “When used in partnership with mechanical recycling, Louisiana will be better positioned to increase its recycling rate and contribute to the US national recycling goal of 50% by 2030.”

An issue that echoes the concerns of the environmental groups that didn’t support the bill was brought up by the Louisiana Illuminator in that same article. A report published by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives back in 2020 found that chemical recycling technology hasn’t advanced enough to support its claim of being a real solution to the plastics problem.

The Louisiana Illuminator noted that at this time, the process uses more energy than it’s capable of producing. This results in toxic byproducts and air pollution. Jane Patton, director of No Waste Louisiana, pointed out that communities don’t want these plants. “They involve the management of toxic materials. They involve the emissions of toxic chemicals and combustible fuels. Communities don’t want these.”

Patton also shared her concerns about allowing these chemical plants to experiment on Louisiana communities. “I am very concerned about the fact that we are essentially opening the door for these companies to have a completely regulation-free space on which to experiment on Louisiana communities,” she said.

The bill exempts chemical recycling facilities from regulations placed on solid waste disposal facilities. These are required to show that they have the funds to properly close facilities and clean up any waste leaked into the soil or groundwater. The fact that these chemical recycling facilities will be able to do as they please and to hell with the environment doesn’t sit well with me.

The aforementioned report, Chemical Recycling: Status, Sustainability, and Environmental Impacts, had four key findings.

1. Chemical recycling is unlikely in the next 10 years to be an effective form of plastic waste management. It noted both forms of chemical recycling: thermolysis and solvent-based. In the first finding, the report noted that chemical recycling appears to represent a dangerous distraction for a society that needs to transition to a sustainable future.

2. Chemical recycling can harm the environment in many ways and these haven’t been properly assessed. Managing the impacts will have a high cost and operational constraints on the technological operators. Due to this, the report stated that chemical recycling should be treated with extreme caution by investors, decision-makers, and regulators.

3. It’s also energy-intensive and has multiple intrinsic and ancillary energy demands. These demands make chemical recycling unsuitable for consideration as a sustainable technology. “No chemical recycling technology can currently offer a net-positive energy balance, and there is no evidence to predict that this can improve in the foreseeable future.”

4. The report also talked about inadequate reporting on the status of chemical recycling mixed with the lack of independent evidence on the technology. This misinformation has led to chemical recycling being portrayed as above and beyond its capabilities. The report called for greater transparency on operational performance, energy balances, and environmental impact assessments.

The report pointed out that although chemical recycling sounds ideal, “sound engineering practice and common sense appears to have given way to blind optimism in the pursuit of an impossible dream. In some cases, bold claims are being made about technologies that have been repeatedly found over the last one hundred years to be unfit for purpose.”

It noted that human toxicity has been under-assessed and that claims of sustainability are exaggerated — there’s no actual proof of sustainability.

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