Environmentalists tell Congress to say ‘no’ to plastic burning scheme

A coalition of more than 200 organizations from around the United States signed a letter to Congress urging the rejection of any legislation that would deregulate ‘pyrolysis and gasification incinerators’ that may set the stage for a nationwide buildout of plastic burning infrastructure under the guise of so-called “advanced recycling”.

For decades, the plastics and chemical industries have failed to prove the technical feasibility, economic prudence, or the benefit to public and environmental health in using pyrolysis and gasification incinerators to treat mixed plastic waste.

While they wait for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a ruling on a Trump-era proposal to exempt pyrolysis and gasification incinerators from air emissions regulations under the Clean Air Act, the industry is asking members of Congress to reclassify these old incineration technologies as manufacturing rather than solid waste disposal, effectively stripping plastic burning incinerators of public health protections that have been in place for over 30 years.

“The plastics industry is promoting burning as solution to the pollution crisis that they created,” said Lisa McCormick, a New Jersey environmentalist. “Congress should not be part of this subterfuge, which would pollute the air and cause greater harm.”

The vast majority of what the industry refers to as “advanced recycling” are actually plastic-to-fuel operations where plastic feedstocks are partially burned to create diesel fuels or synthetic gas (syngas).

These fuels are typically burned onsite or blended with cleaner commercial fuels and burned elsewhere.

There is ample evidence to suggest that uncontrolled emissions from these processes pose significant health and safety risks for local populations, placing a heavy toxic burden on workers and surrounding communities, the majority of which are low-income communities and communities of color.

The letter states: “If chemical manufacturers can operate pyrolysis and gasification facilities in compliance with Clean Air Act protections, as they claim, then why are they fighting to remove these federal health protections? If they cannot meet these basic protections, the last thing Congress should do is exempt them from pollution control laws. It would be unconscionable for any member of Congress to endorse and enable the chemical manufacturers’ plans to evade federal health protections for incinerating plastic, particularly in the face of a global plastic pollution crisis and the projected tripling of plastic waste.”

Calling pyrolysis and gasification “advanced recycling” does not change what they are: heavily polluting, inefficient, and energy-intensive means of burning fossil fuel plastics. To the extent they create anything other than air pollution, their product is a form of chemical waste that is burned again later as hazardous waste or dirty industrial fuel – causing yet more air pollution. This is incompatible with a climate-safe future, and arguably even more destructive for the planet than burning fossil fuels directly. So-called “advanced recycling” moves the plastics from the landfills to the atmosphere, and into our lungs.

With global plastic production expected to triple by 2050, the plastics industry is looking for ways to counter the growing movement to address plastic pollution at its source by dramatically reducing plastic production.

If Congress enables these deceptive industry schemes and chooses to exempt pyrolysis and gasification units from Section 129 of the Clean Air Act, it will only incentivize unnecessary petrochemical expansion and the buildout of plastic incineration infrastructure, while deepening environmental injustice and locking us into a future plagued by rampant plastic production, waste and pollution.

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