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Pa. law paves way for ‘advanced recycling’ of plastics, but environmentalists remain skeptical

A new Pennsylvania law will allow for "advanced recycling" of plastics, meaning the waste will either be broken down into chemical parts to make new plastics or even possibly converted to jet fuel.

Curbside recycling along Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia. Only about 9% of all plastics generated in the U.S. were recycled in 2018.
Curbside recycling along Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia. Only about 9% of all plastics generated in the U.S. were recycled in 2018.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Only about 9% of all plastics generated in the U.S. were recycled in 2018, the latest year data are available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The rest likely went to landfills or were incinerated simply because China no longer takes it, or the plastic is dirty or not readily recyclable.

Joe D’Ascenzo, founder of Refined Plastics LLC in King of Prussia, thinks he sees the future for all that plastic that gets tossed. His company has taken over a decommissioned coal-fired plant in Berks County and plans to break down polymers into pellets and sell them as virgin plastic.

He was all for a Pennsylvania law signed Nov. 25 by Gov. Tom Wolf that lays out regulation for “advanced recycling,” which proponents say will create hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs while finding a way to recycle all the plastic that now gets tossed in landfills.

“It’s a huge step for a whole new industry to be started in the state of Pennsylvania,” D’Ascenzo said.

But some of the state’s biggest environmental groups came out against the legislation, calling it a gift for fossil fuel companies to keep producing plastic, rather than curbing its use.

They fear it opens the state up to plants that will convert the plastic into fuel pellets, leading to more burning of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases. They also say that classifying advanced recycling as manufacturing means less pollution control.

“What they’re calling recycling is just another way to burn fossil fuels,” said Stephanie Wein of PennEnvironment. “The biggest problem for us is that this is being brought up as a solution to the waste crisis.”

Advanced recycling is also known as chemical recycling, which typically involves a process called pyrolysis — using pressure or heat in a low-oxygen environment to turn plastic into liquids or gases that can be used to make new plastic or fuel.

Pyrolysis has been getting a hard look as an alternative since 2018 when China said it would stop accepting U.S. plastic waste. As U.S. municipalities have come under pressure to find new ways to dispose of plastic, some states are looking at chemical recycling.

D’Ascenzo plans to use pyrolysis to sell monomer pellets to manufacturers that can use them to make various plastic products. He views it as not only profitable but beneficial to the environment. He plans to hire 160 people to work at the former Titus Generating Station in Cumru Township.

The new laws allow sites like his to be regulated as manufacturing, not as a solid waste facility, which face specific regulation as to how waste is handled. The facilities are also different from waste-to-energy facilities that burn trash, including plastic.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Ryan Mackenzie (R., Berks-Lehigh), who wrote the original bill, said he got the idea during a legislative hearing with Oregon-based Agilyx, which has a facility in Philadelphia. Agilyx chemically recycles plastics into various products, including jet fuel.

» READ MORE: The fastest growing consumer plastic isn’t being recycled

Mackenzie introduced a bill amended significantly to address issues raised by the state Department of Environmental Protection and other stakeholders. He said it provides a regulatory framework and allows for newer technologies to be used in recycling.

Mackenzie said the bill was needed because there was no specific regulation to address advanced recycling and permitting could take years. Though companies won’t have to obtain a waste handling permit, they will still have to apply for a range of permits that provide environmental safeguards, he said.

“The concerns of environmental groups about the expanded use of plastics I think are really unfounded,” Mackenzie said. “If you’re able to recycle that plastic, that means you’re not taking more petroleum products out of the ground. You’re, in fact, creating a circular economy.”

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware-Montgomery) voted against the bill but said, “in the end it was a close call.”

“The real factual uncertainty in my mind is whether this process is going to lead to more plastic being recycled, or more plastic being burned as fuel,” Vitali said.

PennFuture tried to stop the legislation, and the Clean Air Council was also against it. Logan Welde, an attorney with the Clean Air Council, said he is skeptical that it can work at a large scale or that it is even better environmentally than putting the plastic in a landfill given the intensive process it uses.

Further, he said the law allows the products produced at the facilities to be exempt from the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which gives the EPA authority over hazardous waste. Welde said there is no research to show the true environmental impact of pyrolysis since it is so new and notes that the legislation was supported by the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group.

“Turning plastic into anything is going to be fraught with dangers,” Welde said. “It’s in the industry’s playbook to change the perception of plastic use.”

The real goal, he believes, is to make consumers feel better about their continuing use of plastic.

But D’Ascenzo has a different take. He said the process is not polluting and hopes to have his facility running within months.

“We’ve spent five years designing this process,” D’Ascenzo said. “Everybody in the United States want to recycle, but nobody wants to pay for it. If it’s not profitable, it won’t work. I believe municipal waste in the United States is the greatest unnatural resource.”