Opinion: Plastic to Fuel Is a Threat to Md.’s Environment

Plastic
Polina Tankilevitch/pexels.com.

In Maryland, reducing plastic waste and finding climate solutions have broad support among Marylanders. From plastic foam and bag bans to clean energy and emissions reduction goals, counties, the state legislature and the Hogan administration are making climate and plastic waste priorities. But as Maryland and the country move away from single-use plastic and choses clean energy over burning coal, oil and gas, the plastics industry has started selling a dangerous new idea to protect their profits.

They call it “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling” — but it isn’t actually recycling at all.

When we think of recycling, we think of turning would-be waste into new products instead of letting it pile up in our waterways, landfills and incinerators where it pollutes our planet.

The plastics industry claims that new facilities will convert previously non-recyclable plastic waste into new, recycled plastic products. Sounds too good to be true? It is.

In reality, most of these facilities instead convert plastic into fossil fuels and other toxic byproducts. Using different chemical treatments combined with high heat, truckloads of plastic waste are essentially melted or burned, and that creates combinations of liquids, gases, ash and other toxic leftovers — along with fossil fuels which then get burned. Instead of reducing our plastic use, this process creates a new pipeline for waste and an incentive for companies to make more plastic that still ends up as pollution.

It’s bad for the environment and public health and antithetical to our goals of stopping global warming and moving toward zero-waste.

Based on a recent report, out of the 37 facilities proposed in the U.S. over the last two decades, none have been proven to successfully make new plastic products on a commercial scale. Additionally, over half of the plastic converted in these facilities leaves in the form of harmful byproducts. In other words, when 100 tons of plastic enters a facility, over 50 tons leave as immediate pollution. That’s not recycling. That’s pollution.

Despite its unproven track record with this technology, the plastic industry is lobbying hard in state and federal governments to promote this harmful practice as a solution to the growing plastic waste crisis. In some places, industry lobbyists are trying to get these plastic-to-fuel schemes defined as “recycling” or “mechanical engineering” in order to avoid environmental regulations and other scrutiny and even asking for government subsidies.

The rapid expansion of these strategies over the past few months proves that this fight is only just beginning. Facilities to convert waste-to-fuel have already been built in nearly a dozen states, with more pending. Both Democratic and Republican elected officials around the country are being sold the promise of chemical “recycling” technologies to solve the plastic pollution crisis, in many cases without fully understanding the technology and the dangerous precedent it sets.

We are grateful that Maryland Del. Sara Love introduced House Bill 21 this legislative session to prevent plastic-to-fuel facilities from being built in Maryland. While we are disappointed that this bill did not pass before the session ended, we are glad Maryland leaders are having an important conversation on this technology and now other states and the federal government are taking notice. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) just introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act in Congress. This bill highlights the need to stop plastic-to-fuel operations, and explicitly excludes plastic to fuel from the definition of recycling.

And it isn’t just about plastic pollution, but also plastic’s role in climate change.

Plastic production creates carbon emissions with every step of production, and if our reliance on plastic continues, by 2050 plastic production will account for 20% of the world’s oil consumption. And plastic to fuel takes discarded plastics, breaks them down into fuel or feedstock, which is then burned, emitting more toxins into our air.

In 2018, when the fuel and feedstock produced from one of these facilities alone was burned, over 49,000 tons of toxins went into our air. But toxins aren’t the only output from this process.

A study by GAIA found that in 2019 “the production and incineration of plastic accounted for more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere.” The petrochemical industry has been using recycling as an excuse to oppose upstream solutions for years, while knowing it wouldn’t work. And now they’re trying to again.

It’s time to turn off the tap on plastics and say no to the false promises of the chemical industry. Plastic-to-fuel processes are an attempt to save the plastic industry, not the planet. Let’s keep this technology out of our state and find real solutions to our plastic waste and climate crises.

–MARIAH MACKENZIE

The writer is a campaign associate with Environment Maryland.