New Report Trashes Chemical Recycling—It Doesn't Solve Plastic Pollution

The NRDC study concludes the process is harmful.

worker in construction vest holds bag of trash in front of pile of plastic rubbish

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After the recent signing of an agreement to develop a global treaty on plastics, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) cheered, noting its goal of "accelerating advanced technologies to recycle more of the 90% of plastics that don’t get recycled." These advanced technologies are known as "chemical recycling" or "advanced recycling."

At just about the same time, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a new report: "Recycling Lies: "Chemical Recycling" of Plastic is Just Greenwashing Incineration." Did it do this on purpose? The report author, NRDC Senior Scientist Veena Singla tells Treehugger they didn't: "Timing was a fortunate coincidence- we had not planned on it!"

It is a really happy coincidence because chemical recycling is in the news as the industry's response to the failure of recycling. As both the ACC and the NRDC agree, only about 9% of plastic waste is actually recycled, currently through mechanical means, where it is sorted, cleaned, shredded, and processed into pellets. Around 90% of plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated, or leaked into the environment.

For the next few years, as the plastics treaty is negotiated, the plastics and petrochemical industries are going to be pushing chemical recycling as the answer for that 90%. These are processes where plastics are broken down into their chemical components and can theoretically be reassembled as new plastics. The NRDC lists the processes:


Pyrolysis, or "thermal depolymerization" at high temperature in a low-oxygen environment to thermally degrade plastics. The output is essentially a liquid oil with a heating value close to diesel. According to one study, "it has the potential to be used as an alternative source of energy and as a transportation fuel after refining/blending with conventional fuels."


Gasification is another form of thermal depolymerization where, according to a study, "plastic waste is reacted with gasifying agent (e.g., steam, oxygen and air) at high temperature around 500–1300 °C, which can produce synthesis gas or syngas."

Solvent-based processes

Solvent-based processes, which is just as it sounds, the plastic is dissolved in solvents and then chemically separated.

Chemical Depolymerization

Chemical Depolymerization, which uses solvents or heat to break polymers down to their building blocks, monomers, which can then be recombined to make new plastics. On Greenbiz they write that they "can be used to make new plastic that is virtually identical to the virgin feedstock that had come from fossil fuels."

All these processes are being pushed as part of the "circular economy." We covered them earlier under slightly different names in the post "How the Plastics Industry is Hijacking the Circular Economy." And, as we also noted earlier, much of what is happening now is just fancy incineration, is not economically viable, and is "meant to give a false sense of progress on the pollution crisis."

The NRDC report confirms this.

"Producing fuel from plastic waste does not qualify as recycling by international standards. Additionally, it requires continued plastic inputs to create fuels that, just like typical fossil fuels, produce harmful air pollution and greenhouse gases when burned; thus, plastic-to-fuel is incompatible with circular-economy or zero-carbon goals. Previous analyses have found that plastic-to-chemical components “recycling” is barely present on a commercial scale in the United States; plastic-to-fuel processes are more common."

The NRDC researchers studied facilities that are operating or proposed and their review of the eight selected “chemical recycling” facilities in the U.S. revealed that:

  • The majority of facilities are not recycling any plastic
  • The facilities generate large quantities of hazardous waste;
  • They release hazardous air pollutants
  • They are often in communities that are disproportionately low income, people of color, or both

"Given these issues, 'chemical recycling' cannot be the solution to our plastic problem—no matter how the plastic industry tries to spin it," said the NRDC.

One plant, Agilyx in Oregon, that uses pyrolysis to process polystyrene into styrene, shipped half a million pounds of toxic waste across the country to be burned in 2019. Other plants released "hazardous air pollutants(HAPs), chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects like birth defects." The plants appear to be located in communities that are "disproportionately low income, people of color, or both."

Singla and her team conclude "all forms of “chemical recycling” are plagued with problems and do not represent a solution to the plastic waste crisis"

"Using pyrolysis and gasification to convert plastic into fuel should not be considered recycling, and recycling standards must continue to exclude such processes. Plastic-to-fuel is not considered recycling by ISO standards, the EU Environmental Commission, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and many other groups. Despite the fact that plastic-to-fuel does not recycle plastic, the industry continues to strongly support it. This is likely because plastic-to-fuel creates a mirage of “recycling” to assuage public concerns about increased plastic use and waste but does not disrupt new plastic production. This paves the way for continued profits and the expansion of plastic production facilities. Ensuring that plastic-to-fuel remains excluded from official definitions of recycling will make it difficult for plastic manufacturers to succeed in this greenwashing."

It should also be noted that even if it worked, it doesn't solve the problem that somebody still has to gather up the plastics and separate them. Even the ACC says we would also need "national recycling standards to collect more materials." That is usually the taxpayer and makes it even less economically viable.

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I wrote earlier:

"The fundamental problem that we always return to is that the point of all this is to convince people that recycling actually works, that we can all feel good about buying stuff made from plastic because it's not just going to go into the ocean or the landfill, but will be turned back into something even better than [the usual downcycled] bench. People want to feel good about recycling, having been convinced that it is the greenest of virtues. Chemical recycling fills the bill."

It's all being sold as green, when in fact it is polluting and consumes huge amounts of energy—it is just turning fossil fuels into carbon dioxide and toxic waste with a short intermediates step as a disposable plastic. It's called circular, but the only truly circular product is returnable and refillable.

“‘Chemical recycling’ is just a greenwashing term for burning plastic and not a solution to our plastic waste problem—no matter how the chemical industry tries to spin it," said Daniel Rosenberg, director of federal toxics policy at NRDC. "The Biden administration and Congress should reject plastic makers’ efforts to classify turning plastic into fuel as a legitimate form of recycling.”

Does the current crisis and the hike in fuel prices change anything?

One of the reasons that chemical recycling—or for that matter any kind of recycling—was uneconomic was because the U.S. was flush with cheap natural gas and oil feedstocks and virgin plastics were cheaper than recycled. Like everything else, this got turned on its head with the recovery from the pandemic and the crisis in Ukraine, when gas prices rose and supplies tightened. I suspect the petrochemical industry might play the energy independence card and push chemical recycling, along with more conventional waste-to-energy programs, as a way to reduce the need for gas feedstocks.

I asked Singla about this and she told Treehugger (with a caveat of her not being an economist) about one particular pyrolysis operation: Brightmark in Ashley, Indiana.

Screenshot of the EPA submission
EPA submission for the Brightmark plant.


"According to comments that Brightmark submitted to EPA only 20% of the annual output is actual fuel product. The rest is used to power the plant, flared, or landfilled. In a news article, someone from Brightmark discusses the problem with trucking costs and how that makes it uneconomical to source waste plastics outside a 150 mile radius—and high costs of fuel will eat into this. So even if fuel prices are high, it cuts both ways here. So overall it still seems like a marginal proposition to me."

As noted earlier on Treehugger, "Chemical recycling, at least as is happening now, is just an elaborate and expensive version of waste-to-energy. There is no point, other than it makes waste disappear." It was and remains, as Singla notes, a marginal proposition.

View Article Sources
  1. "UNEA Takes Big Step Toward Global Plastics Treaty." American Chemistry Council, 2022.

  2. Singla, Veena. "Recycling Lies: "Chemical Recycling" of Plastic is Just Greenwashing Incineration." Natural Resource Defense Council, 2022.

  3. Miandad, Rashid, et al. "Catalytic Pyrolysis of Plastic Waste: Moving Toward Pyrolysis Based Biorefineries.Frontiers in Energy Research, vol 7, 2019, doi:10.3389/fenrg.2019.00027


  5. "New NRDC 'Chemical Recycling' Analysis: Process is Harmful, Misleading, Not Solving Plastic Pollution." Natural Resources Defense Council, 2022.