Efforts to increase the recycling of plastic waste could lead to a huge boost in greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to energy-hungry chemical processes, according to The Wall Street Journal Wednesday.
Chemical recycling, an emissions-heavy process where plastics are heated and pressurized to be broken down into oils and other components, is a growing method of plastics recycling in the U.S., the WSJ reported. Data from Chemical Market Analytics — an analytics firm owned by WSJ-parent Dow Jones that studies the plastics industry — indicates that efforts to boost recycling will invariably lead to a significant increase in the use of chemical recycling techniques, with a greater emissions surge accompanying higher rates of recycling.
Two key scenarios developed by the CMA are the “green” scenario, where strict regulations stunt demand for plastics alongside increased investment in recycling compared to a status quo baseline, and the “circular” scenario, where all plastic waste is recycled by 2050, according to the WSJ. In the “green” scenario, emissions are 8% higher than the baseline scenario, while the “circular” scenario would see a 26% increase compared to the baseline.
In an April 2023 report the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted the potential “health and environmental risks” from chemical recycling, but nonetheless called for a “circular” economy that ends all plastic waste by 2040. The EPA has also set a goal of recycling 50% of all U.S. plastic waste by 2030, up from the roughly 5% that is currently recycled.
The CMA estimate does not take into effect the possible impact that these changes might have on the broader economy, the WSJ reported. For example, increased recycling might reduce the amount of waste incinerated or shift market demand away from materials that compete with plastics.
The U.S. currently has 15 chemical recycling plants under construction, with roughly twice as many in the works, according to the WSJ. Some states — most recently Indiana in late April — have gone so far as to classify chemical recycling plants as manufacturing facilities instead of waste plants, opening them up for significant tax breaks and subsidies.
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