GAO Report Highlights the Benefits of Advanced Recycling of Plastics | Citizens Against Government Waste

GAO Report Highlights the Benefits of Advanced Recycling of Plastics

The WasteWatcher

While everyone agrees that recycling is good for the environment, the rules can feel like trying to solve a calculus problem.  In some areas of the country, paper products can be mixed with plastic and glass, while in other areas, glass is mixed with paper but not plastic, and some allow the recycling to be put into plastic bags, while others require throwing it all into the trash bin.  Some states and local governments restrict the use of plastic bags by either requiring stores to charge bag fees or prohibiting their use in stores entirely.  There are also new restrictions on the use of plastic bottles (often restricted to soda or sugary drinks but sometimes including water) in schools and local government facilities.

More often than not, recycling ends up being a collection mode to forward plastics and other recyclable products into landfills, as opposed to finding new uses for these items.  In most municipalities, the primary means for recycling plastic remains using mechanical recycling, which is a time-consuming process involving sorting, grinding, washing, separating, drying, and re-granulating plastics to enable their use as a substitute for virgin (or unused) plastics.  But rather than imposing increased restrictions and onerous additional taxes on consumers to reduce plastic use, there are new technologies that could vastly increase their re-use. 

A September 14, 2021 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that 75.5 percent of plastic currently ends up in landfills; 15.8 percent is incinerated; and only 8.7 percent of plastic waste is recycled.  GAO noted the use of advanced or chemical recycling as an alternative means to recycle and reuse plastic products and help reduce the waste entering the nation’s landfills and polluting oceans. 

Advanced recycling uses various methods to convert plastic waste into liquids that can become new petrochemicals and converted into post-use recycled plastic materials.  The methods used in advanced recycling include conversion, which takes the long-chain hydrocarbon molecules from mixed or sorted plastics and breaks it down into smaller molecules through techniques like pyrolysis and gasification, involving high temperatures to refine the plastic into a synthetic crude oil; decomposition, which break down or depolymerizes the sorted plastics to produce new plastics using either heat or chemicals; and purification, which uses solvents to separate polymers from additives or containments.

Despite the potential benefits of advanced recycling, challenges remain.  The GAO report cites high startup and operating costs, and an underdeveloped domestic market for recycled products creating limited incentives for production.  The GAO noted that advanced plastic recycling may not be suitable for all plastic products, particularly when polymer chains are irreversibly bonded together.  In the current market, virgin plastics are also cheaper to produce due to transportation costs and limited recycling infrastructure.  Yet, even with these challenges, advanced recycling is worth looking into as governments try to find better management opportunities for reducing landfill waste.

In March 2020, CAGW Director for Health and Science Elizabeth Wright noted the efforts being made to “encourage efficient recycling, like those proposed by Closed Loop Partners, a private investment firm that works with industry, entrepreneurs, and municipalities to develop advanced recycling technologies.”  Ms. Wright noted that this firm argues “there is a market to recycle plastics, but there is not enough available as almost 90 percent of plastic waste ends up in a landfill, incinerator, or the environment.”  The European Commission adopted a circular economy action plan (CEAP) in March 2020 that includes the use of advanced recycling, and Closed Loop Partners has noted it has used the circular economy to keep 2.3 million tons of materials in circulation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) by 5.3 million tons globally. 

Rabobank’s RaboResearch – Economic Research issued a report on December 18, 2020, which found that “advanced recycling can complement existing recycling methods – so in one way or another it can help increase global recycling rates and accelerate the transition towards a circular economy.”  However, the study also found that advanced recycling remains too early in its development to determine if it could be considered the “ultimate solution for the plastic packaging waste problem.”  The study noted concerns about energy efficiency and by-product toxicity, as well as the complexity of the recycling process as additional challenges that need to be better understood.

Instead of taxing plastic bags or banning plastic products, local governments need to work with the plastics industry and companies that are utilizing advanced or chemical recycling methods.  This innovative industry provides good-paying jobs and will help the environment now and in the future.

 

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