In a triumphant shift, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has quashed an attempt, initially proposed during the Trump administration, to lax regulations on the so-called ‘advanced’ plastic recycling processes, rejecting the chemical industry’s lobbying efforts to manipulate clean-air rules.
The decision announced on May 24 draws the line on two contentious plastic recycling methods: pyrolysis and gasification. For the past 30 years, both have been subjected to stringent emission requirements of the federal Clean Air Act, owing to their classification as forms of incineration. However, in the twilight of Trump’s era, the EPA seemed swayed by the industry’s narrative that pyrolysis – a process that uses heat and a lack of oxygen to decompose materials – should not be viewed as incineration.
Why is this a big deal? The chemical industry, in its quest to combat plastic waste, has been advocating for pyrolysis as the magic wand to convert plastic into synthetic gases, oil, and char residue. Proponents claim this method could manage plastics that traditional mechanical recycling fails to address. And this argument has been convincing enough for state legislatures to incentivize the development of a chemical recycling industry.
Let’s put this into perspective. Our world is producing double the plastic waste compared to just two decades ago, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Alarmingly, only 9 percent of this colossal plastic output is successfully recycled. As this mountain of waste grows, the chemical industry touts ‘advanced recycling’ as the savior, despite government scientists questioning its environmental benefits and commercial feasibility.
The EPA’s 2020 proposal to ease regulations sparked a firestorm of criticism from environmental advocates and Democratic Congress members. They argue that pyrolysis and gasification are indeed combustion processes. Easing off on regulating them would not only heighten health risks but also fail to address the overarching plastic waste crisis.
Addressing this critique, the EPA announced its final decision to withdraw the 2020 proposal, citing the need to “prevent any regulatory gaps and ensure that public health protections are maintained.” However, the EPA is keeping an open mind, noting that it still needs to thoroughly analyze the 170 comments received on the proposal to fully comprehend pyrolysis.
Environmental advocates are rejoicing over the EPA’s decision, viewing it as an effective weapon in their fight for cleaner air against the expansion of chemical recycling. James Pew, director of clean air practice at the environmental group Earthjustice, highlights the importance of this decision, stating that without it, incinerators using pyrolysis or gasification would not have to install pollution controls, meet emission limits, or even report their pollution.
“The fossil fuel industry will have to get permits and follow an emission speed limit if it wants to polka dot the country with a new fleet of plastic incinerators,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics.
This decision is a victory for clean air, public health, and the environment. It’s a reminder that while innovative solutions are necessary in our fight against plastic waste, we must ensure that these solutions do not come at the cost of our planet’s health and safety. The EPA’s refusal to bend to industry pressures is a step in the right direction, reinforcing the importance of stringent, health-protecting regulations.