Since 2017, 20 states have passed laws that relax pollution regulations and/or provide subsidies for these facilities, with some explicitly defining them as recycling facilities. Eleven states have passed such legislation in the two years since GAIA’s last report on the trend. The most recent is Missouri, which passed legislation on July 1 of this year.
“The greenwashing practice of renaming and reclassifying incineration as a sustainable method of ‘waste recycling’ and ‘clean energy’ laid out in this report shows the disturbing influence that petrochemical lobbyists wield in state legislatures,” said Dr. Tok Michelle Oyewole, U.S. Policy & Research Coordinator at GAIA and the author of the report, “It is beyond time for commercial industries to transition to waste reduction and product reuse and refill, in order to stop polluting our air and water and exacerbating climate change caused by extreme reliance on fossil fuels and their derivatives, including plastic.”
An investigation by Reuters last year found that, despite tens of millions of dollars in investments and tax subsidies, few of these facilities are operational. None are recycling plastic into usable ingredients at scale, instead turning plastic back into a contaminated fossil fuel and releasing air and water pollutants in the process. Gasification and pyrolysis units, the primary technologies used, have instead always been included in the EPA’s definition of waste incineration.
“We urge the EPA to classify all forms of incineration—pyrolysis, gasification, depolymerization, transformation, vaporization, etc.—as such under Clean Air Act section 129, to ensure that all such facilities are subject to protective air and water emission caps, and to do so while the nation moves away from excessive waste generation and the hazardous consequences of toxic burning,” Dr. Oyewole added.
Reports by GAIA, the National Resource Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have found that these plastic burning plants are not currently capable, and unlikely to become capable, of processing a large volume of plastic. As is typical of waste processing and oil plants, the majority are located in low-income and communities of color. Earlier this year, regulators in Georgia canceled what would have been the nation’s largest advanced recycling facility after its operator, Brightmark, failed to prove the viability of the technology.
“For decades, the plastics and chemical industries have fooled the public into thinking that single-use plastics are recyclable, when in fact less than 10% actually get recycled. Now, they are pushing plastic burning as their next scheme. It is unfortunate that lawmakers around the country are falling for this. They should more closely examine the facts and reject plastic burning in all of its greenwashed names, “said Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and former EPA Regional Administrator.
The uptick illustrated in the report comes as the plastic industry plans to quadruple its production of fossil fuel-derived plastic by 2050. Many so-called “advanced recycling” facilities, such as ExxonMobil’s in Baytown, TX, are operated by fossil fuel companies.