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America Needs Modern Regulations for Modern Technologies

We should Scale Advanced Recycling to Accelerate a Circular Economy for Plastics

Craig Cookson

You’ve heard me talk about advanced recycling many times on this blog and how it will play a critical role in achieving a circular economy for plastics. The demand for recycled plastic is growing rapidly as more brand companies commit to using it in their products and packaging, and advanced recycling will help create the supply. Congress can help accelerate this process.

Why Advanced Recycling?

Advanced recycling technologies take plastics back to their molecular building blocks to create new virgin-quality raw materials. These technologies complement traditional recycling methods and are essential to helping consumer goods companies meet their goals for using more recycled plastics. Advanced recycling also is essential to helping keep plastic waste out of our environment and achieving a circular economy.

There are economic drivers, too. In 2019 Closed Loop Partners, a New York-based investment firm, estimated that there is a $120 billion-dollar economic opportunity directly connected to the commercialization of advanced recycling technologies. That same year, McKinsey & Company estimated the recovery of plastic packaging to be valued at two to four billion dollars annually.

Today’s Regulatory Landscape

Today, 36 states still have outdated policies that do not recognize advanced recycling as a manufacturing activity. Policies which treat advanced recycling as “waste disposal” mischaracterize the activities being undertaken and send today’s entrepreneurs down an outmoded regulatory pathway for siting a facility, making it more difficult for companies to invest in modern, advanced recycling technologies.

Furthermore, the lack of clear statutory definitions could potentially lead to misguided regulations. The U.S. EPA recently announced an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that could potentially regulate pyrolysis and gasification technologies under section 129 of the Clean Air Act, which regulates solid waste incinerators.

But such a move would be extremely misguided. First, advanced recycling facilities don’t process waste. Rather, they receive pre-sorted plastics to use as feedstock for manufacturing. Second, advanced recycling facilities do not combust feedstocks. Instead, they process these materials to make and sell new products.

What Congress Can Do

In America’s Plastic Makers’ 5 Actions to Accelerate a Circular Economy for Plastics, Action #2 calls on Congress to create a modern regulatory system that enables rapid scaling of advanced recycling for plastics while continuing to grow and modernize mechanical recycling. It’s important that legislation clearly define advanced recycling as a manufacturing process, distinguish it from solid waste disposal, and clarify that converting plastic to fuel is defined as advanced recovery. Legislation also should recognize the ability of auditable third-party certification systems to demonstrate production of recycled plastics by applying mass balance attribution principles.

While it’s true that any act of Congress is no simple thing, 14 states (blue, red, purple) already have enacted legislation to more accurately characterize advanced recycling technologies, giving Congress a bi-partisan template to use at the Federal level.

Creating a modern regulatory system for recycling could go a long way in showing nationwide commitment to end plastic waste and meet recycling commitments, such as the EPA’s goal of increasing the national recycling rate to 50% by 2030. It could also help incentivize billions of dollars in investments in recycling infrastructure, leading to improvements for recycling across the board. And it could pave the way for developing national recycling standards for plastics. Which just so happens to be the third of the 5 Actions we proposed to Congress. (And the topic for my next blog post.)

About the Author
American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents the leading companies engaged in the multibillion-dollar business of chemistry. ACC members apply the science of chemistry to make innovative products, technologies and services that make people's lives better, healthier and safer. ACC is committed to improved environmental, health, safety and security performance through Responsible Care®; common sense advocacy addressing major public policy issues; and health and environmental research and product testing. ACC members and chemistry companies are among the largest investors in research and development, and are advancing products, processes and technologies to address climate change, enhance air and water quality, and progress toward a more sustainable, circular economy.

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