In a report tied to the massive $1.7 trillion federal budget bill signed last week by President Joe Biden, Congress has signaled to the Environmental Protection Agency that it should not loosen regulations around the chemical recycling of plastic waste.
The advice from lawmakers was included in wording in a House Appropriations Committee report on the federal budget urging the EPA to continue to regulate chemical recycling as incineration with its stricter clean air requirements. It was not in the budget bill itself. The Congressional language “encourages” EPA to take into account the environmental impacts of chemical recycling during an ongoing rule-making process by the agency.
While not having the force of law, such report language can help document the omnibus budget bill’s legislative history, help people and courts interpret Congress’ intent, and may send a message, experts said this week.
“This is sending a very clear message to the (Biden) administration, to the EPA, to industry, saying chemical recycling is not recycling,” said Anja Brandon, associate director for U.S. plastics policy with the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group that worked with Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, to secure the language in the report. “These technologies emit dangerous greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals while enabling industry to continue unfettered plastics production.”
The legislative memo comes as companies seek to commercialize pyrolysis and gasification recycling technology, including projects in Pennsylvania and Indiana, or even to turn trash that includes 30 percent plastic into jet fuel. Academics are questioning some of the proposals, which have stirred fights from local residents and environmentalists. Internationally, diplomats, industry representatives and environmentalists are wrestling with the question of whether chemical recycling should be seen as a tool for managing plastic waste in existing or future United Nations treaties.
The American Chemistry Council, a leading advocate for chemical recycling, criticized the Ocean Conservancy and downplayed the significance of the committee report’s wording while noting a win of its own in the state of Michigan.
“While Ocean Conservancy claims victory for language that doesn’t carry the force of law, constructive stakeholders are celebrating something that helps create a cleaner, more sustainable future,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council. He said that Michigan enacted legislation in December to become the latest state to smooth the way for chemical recycling, and added that the chemistry council “will continue to focus our advocacy on making sustainable change instead of inflating toothless rhetoric.”
In all, the chemistry council has advocated for and celebrated action by 21 states which have, since 2017, passed legislation aimed at regulating chemical recycling as manufacturing, not waste management or waste incineration. Such legislation is intended to help scale up chemical recycling and allow for more recycled content to be in plastic products, Baca has said.
What little portion of plastic waste that gets recycled in the United States—less than 6 percent, according to a study last year—is recycled by a mechanical process that can include shredding, melting and remolding. Chemical recycling, often called advanced recycling by the industry, seeks to turn plastic materials back into their basic chemical building blocks to make new plastic, fuel or chemicals for making everything from detergents to cars to clothing. But the technology is still largely in the research and development phase.
EPA regulations consider technologies used in chemical recycling such as pyrolysis and gasification to be incineration, bringing tighter clean-air controls. In the waning months of the Trump administration, EPA proposed an industry-friendly rule change that stated that pyrolysis is not combustion and thus should not be regulated as incineration. The Biden administration began reconsidering the Trump EPA proposal in September 2021, requesting comments from the public.
“EPA appreciates the input from Congress,” an EPA spokeswoman said on Thursday. EPA is considering the input it has received in response to its rule-making “before determining next steps,” the spokeswoman said.
The industry claims chemical recycling is not incineration because no oxygen is involved. Environmental advocates disagree and argue that the industry is seeking to escape more stringent regulations meant to control dangerous emissions from incineration.
Huffman was on the House floor Thursday amid the Republican chaos over the GOP’s inability to get enough votes to elect a new speaker of the House. During a break between votes, Huffman said “this is the first time we have seen (chemical recycling) language like this on a federal level. This is an important step in getting the kind of oversight and accountability for this harmful industry that we need.”
Even though the language is not law, he said “it shows Congressional intent” and gives direction to EPA “in the middle of a rulemaking that would make a huge difference on this issue.”
A Huffman spokeswoman also referred to the language contained in the legislative report, including: “The Committee encourages the (EPA) to consider the emissions, disproportionate impacts, and lack of circularity in its ongoing rulemaking on the regulatory treatment of gasification and pyrolysis units and encourages the (EPA) to maintain regulating these technologies as municipal waste combustion units,” as defined by the Clean Air Act.
Huffman was among 35 lawmakers who wrote in July to the EPA raising concerns over chemical recycling, saying pyrolysis and gasification contribute to the climate crisis and perpetuate environmental injustice in vulnerable communities.
In that letter, the lawmakers wrote: “Chemical recycling facilities emit highly toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylenes, and dioxins, many of which are linked to cancer, nervous system damage, and negative effects on reproduction and development. The plastic and petrochemical industry has lobbied at the state level to eliminate emission control requirements for incinerators using these technologies, exposing vulnerable fenceline communities to toxic emissions from these processes.”
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They urged EPA to retain requirements that pyrolysis and gasification units meet its “existing incinerator standards” as well as require more transparency so people who live near chemical recycling facilities can find out the details about their emissions, including hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gases.
“The absolute crux of this issue is whether these new incinerators have to put on controls, like with conventional incinerators, or whether they can skip that and not control or monitor their pollution,” said James Pew, director of the environmental group Earthjustice’s clean air practice.
He said language linked to the budget bill “seems like a helpful request although it shouldn’t be necessary to ask EPA to follow the law.”