Waste Legislation

US: Chemical recycling law in Pennsylvania proves controversial

A new recycling law promoted by the US plastics industry law faces opposition from environmental groups.

Act 127 was signed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf on November 25, 2020 and came into effect as of January 2021.

Lauded by the US plastic industry as a ‘step towards establishing a more circular economy’, the law is intended as a means to reduce national plastic proliferation.

A 2020 report in Science Advances revealed that America is the world’s largest generator of plastic waste, having produced 42 million metric tonnes of it in 2016 alone. Less than 10% of said plastic is being recycled.

The US, in fact, has a thirty-year old history of shipping at least half of its plastic waste to China, formerly considered the prime global waste dumping ground for its low transportation costs as well as lax recycling standards. In January 2018, however, that practice came to an end after China enacted its ‘National Sword’ policy. This piece of legislation translated to a ban on all imported plastics, as China readied itself to get rid of an environmental burden to its waste processing capabilities not even of its own making. Since then, the US has been scrambling to accommodate to the change in circumstances as plastic generation continues to rise within the country.

Act 127, which serves to amend part of the Pennsylvania Solid Waste Management Act, is posited as a solution to the national plastic crisis.

The law changes the classification of ‘advanced recycling plants’ (also known as chemical recycling plants) to ‘manufacturing facilities’. The change in itself signifies an essential deregulation, with the intention being to render the establishment of chemical recycling plants more attractive to manufacturers, thereby encouraging further investment and innovation in the field.    

Proponents of the legislation such as the Pennsylvania Manufacturer’s Association (PMA) believe it will help revalue plastic waste by ensuring that it gets converted into feedstock for new products at the end of its life cycle. Chemical industry groups like the American Chemistry Council (ACC) predict that it will boost the state economy by $314 million, simultaneously generating more jobs.

The potential for chemical recycling to deal with contaminated plastics has been touted as another reason as to why the strengthening of the sector post Act 127 should be considered favourably. Contaminated plastics, which refers either to polymers that have not been properly cleaned and come with attached with food residue or to those that have been mixed with unrecyclable plastics due to consumer error upon disposal, can’t be recycled by conventional methods.

Yet calls against advanced recycling have been growing louder amongst environmental groups.

These parties point out that Act 127 indirectly encourages both the production of single-use plastics (which are needed to fuel the chemical recycling process!) as well as the generation of carbon emissions (since recycled plastic mostly ends up converted into fossil fuels).

Both sides of the debate fail to consider, however, what role the government should have in setting recycling standards as well as monitoring recycling levels.

A federal recycling regulation, as proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2020, could be the means to slash plastic pollution rates.

Seen from that angle, Act 127 does pave the way to a circular plastic economy.