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Advanced Plastics Recycling and the Air We Breathe

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Sarah Lindsay
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I’ve written about the promise of advanced recycling a lot on this blog. These technologies take a raw material – in this case, used plastics with their inherent hydrocarbon/energy value – and create valuable new materials that can be turned into new plastics, chemicals, lubricants, waxes, coatings and transportation fuels, and more. That helps keep these used plastics out of the environment and turn them back into useful products.  

But… what about the safety of the air we breathe? Must these technologies comply with clean air regulations like other manufacturing facilities?

A new study helps clarify all this.

The recently released study from the aptly named Good Company, a sustainability consulting firm based in Eugene, Ore., looked at the air emissions from advanced recycling facilities, specifically pyrolysis-based advanced recycling facilities. Like other manufacturers, these advanced recycling facilities must comply with multiple requirements to operate. They’re covered by the federal Clean Air Act as well as  state and local regulations. They also need to obtain operating permits and continue to monitor and report various air emissions as they operate.

What did Good Company find? Well… good news. In short, air emissions are very low.

The report looked at emissions for six criteria air pollutants, commonly known as CAPs, from pyrolysis-based advanced recycling facilities, and compared them to publicly available U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air quality standards and federally reported air emissions data. The study also compared these air emissions to those from other manufacturing facilities and institutions we’re all familiar with, like food manufacturers, auto makers, universities and hospitals.

The study found that emissions of:

  • volatile organic compounds compare to smaller-than-average food processing facilities, such as a Frito-Lay facility in Windham, Conn.;
  • particulate matter also compares to smaller-than-average food processing facilities, such as a Land O’Lakes cheese production facility in Spencer, Wis.;
  • sulfur dioxide compares to smaller than average institutions (hospitals, universities, and prisons), such as the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.;
  • nitrogen oxides compare to larger than average institutions, such as the University of California, Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, Calif.; and
  • carbon monoxide roughly compares to larger than average car making facilities, such as the General Motors Lordstown manufacturing plant in Trumbell, Ohio.

Importantly, the report found no measurable lead or dioxin emissions from pyrolysis facilities.

The highest emissions – nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide – are due primarily to the use of natural gas for process energy and heat.

The study also found that advanced recycling facilities produced very low levels of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), well below EPA permitting requirements.

This isn’t the first time Good Company has looked at air emissions from advanced recycling facilities. It released a very similar report in 2017. The main difference was the facility size. The 2021 report looks at average-sized advanced recycling facilities that can process up to 55,000 tons of post-use plastics annually, whereas the 2017 report looked at facilities that can process up to 15,000 tons annually. Not only does this show how quickly this industry is commercializing and growing, it shows that even larger facilities that can recycle greater amounts of plastics continued to produce emissions that are well below federal permitting requirements.

So, while we work to grow plastics recycling—with the ultimate goal of recovering, recycling, or reusing all plastic packaging in the U.S by 2040—and keep plastics out of our environment, policymakers, communities and other stakeholders can value these benefits of advanced recycling while also knowing data show these facilities are well-regulated and produce low air emissions. Please see the full report here.

About the author
American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents the leading companies engaged in the business of chemistry. ACC members apply the science of chemistry to make innovative products and services that make people's lives better, healthier and safer. ACC is committed to improved environmental, health and safety performance through Responsible Care®; common sense advocacy designed to address major public policy issues; and health and environmental research and product testing. The business of chemistry is a $486 billion enterprise and a key element of the nation's economy. It is among the largest exporters in the nation, accounting for ten percent of all U.S. goods exports. Chemistry companies are among the largest investors in research and development. Safety and security have always been primary concerns of ACC members, and they have intensified their efforts, working closely with government agencies to improve security and to defend against any threat to the nation’s critical infrastructure.

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