A new report out this week from the groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup found that plastic recycling rates have actually fallen in the US since the emergence of “advanced recycling” in 2018, from its highest ever point of 9% to less than 6% today, compared with a 66% recycling rate for paper.
“They’re finally kind of admitting that recycling hasn’t worked,” Beyond Plastics president Judith Enck said of groups like ACC and its members that have been lobbying against environmental protections. “And it doesn’t work by design. It’s not like they’re surprised by this. They knew all along it wouldn’t work.”
A 2020 investigation from NPR and Frontline showed how companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dow and Dupont were aware of the inefficacy of plastic recycling, yet they still strategized marketing campaigns that told a different story to the public.
In April, California attorney general Rob Bonta launched an investigation into ExxonMobil for its role in exacerbating the global plastic pollution crisis. Bonta says his investigation started with ExxonMobil because they’ve been a leader, in the plastics industry and in the messaging around recycling. A report out last year from the Mindaroo Foundation found that just 100 companies produce 90% of the world’s plastic pollution. It pinpointed ExxonMobil as the top producer in the world of single-use plastic. The International Energy Agency has predicted that plastic production, which is forecasted to double by 2040, will be the biggest growth market for the oil industry over the next decade.
ExxonMobil said it is “focused on solutions” like building the first “commercial-scale advanced recycling technology” and that “meritless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work that is under way”. But like regular old recycling, “advanced recycling” has so far shown little to no results.
Also known as pyrolysis or chemical recycling, the process entails using various chemical processes to turn plastic into other materials. The most common approach is warming plastic at very high heat to turn it into a low-grade fossil fuel, which can then be used either as fuel or as a feedstock for more plastic. The technology is still in its infancy, but early studies have found that like earlier versions of plastic recycling, the “ advanced” method is expensive, and that it’s difficult to collect and effectively recycle a wide variety of plastics. It also delivers few environmental benefits, not just because it’s used to create either fuel or more plastic, but also because the process itself is emissions intensive. One study commissioned by plastic manufacturers themselves found that advanced recycling generated more greenhouse gases than either landfilling plastic or burning it.
Bonta says he’d love to see advanced recycling work, but right now it’s just “words on paper”. A 2021 Reuters investigation found several examples of failed advanced recycling programs, noting that out of 30 projects operating around the world, all were either still operating on a modest scale or had shut down, and more than half were years behind schedule on previously announced commercial plans. A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council published in March noted that even when it “works” advanced recycling is not an environmentally friendly solution.
The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a trade group for the chemical industry, has been pushing advanced recycling since China shut its borders to used plastic in 2018. The group has also been lobbying state governments to exempt their recycling process from various environmental regulations – 18 states have laws on the books that either side-step certain government oversight or designate advanced recycling facilities as eligible for subsidies. It’s part of a strategy former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy called “getting ahead of government intervention”.