Industry Dreams of Chemical Recycling

The Big Idea

CIRCULAR DEBATE — How do you know when something is a solution or a problem?

Oil and chemical companies are investing in a technology to melt down plastic back into its chemical components, arguing that it can help address the country’s plastics crisis.

Twenty states — all but one of them with Republican-led legislatures — have adopted rules favorable to chemical recycling since 2017, as our Jordan Wolman reports.

Only eight facilities are in operation nationwide, but more than 40 companies are getting into the game, including Dow, Shell, Total Energies and Chevron Phillips. The American Chemistry Council envisions 150 plants around the country, heating up old plastic and selling the feedstock back to plastics manufacturers.

The idea is that these plants will boost the value of recycled plastic, helping to increase recycling rates and reduce the amount of waste dumped in landfills and polluting the world’s waterways.

Environmental groups aren’t having it. They argue that the pollutants released by the process — including toxic chemicals like benzene, mercury and arsenic — are dangerous enough to negate any potential benefits.

ACC wants to push further, including in Congress. A contingent of House Democrats is trying to stop them. The fight is focused on EPA, where regulators have been considering a rule for over a year but haven’t said when they plan to release it.

“We are in the EPA’s face on this,” said Teresa Mills, executive director of Ohio’s Buckeye Environmental Network and a community organizer with the Center for Health and Environmental Justice.

The battle is also still in the states, where regulators trying to move faster than the feds are being pulled between the two poles.

“It’s clear that chemical recycling is one of the issues that we are going to have to deal with,” Tom Metzner, an environmental analyst at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said at a forum last month. “We will see where the technology goes. The way we envision it, the stewardship organization that proposes chemical recycling, they will have to prove that that is the better environmental outcome.”


Building Blocks

IT’S CALLED A HOLY GRAIL FOR A REASON —  Federal researchers are announcing today a breakthrough in nuclear technology — they’ve used a massive laser to generate more energy than it consumes, in the same type of atomic fusion process that the Sun uses.

It would be really cool if we had that kind of clean-burning electricity source, but don’t get too excited.

The National Ignition Facility’s director predicted in 2012 that fusion technology would be commercially viable in 10 years. And now? It’s still more than a decade away, experts told POLITICO’s Ben Lefebvre and Catherine Morehouse.

“It will be more than a little late for achieving decarbonization,” said Ed Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. We really need to do that in the next decade or two, and even the most optimistic estimates wouldn’t have fusion power until the 2040s.”

BANG FOR THE BUCK — An upcoming federal rule to address “forever chemicals” in drinking water could improve water quality far beyond its scope, POLITICO’s Annie Snider reports.

EPA is expected to set mandatory limits for two of the most notorious PFAS chemicals by the end of the month — its first new limits on contaminants in drinking water in more than 30 years. The chemicals are so harmful to humans that the technology needed to treat them at such tiny concentrations could address a slew of other pollution that remains unregulated, from personal care products to pharmaceuticals to pesticides.

The rule could also change the calculus that has water utilities using chlorine to disinfect supplies despite a slightly increased cancer risk from the treatment. How many people will benefit depends on where EPA sets its treatment limits.

“It could have amazing effects on the drinking water quality,” said Betsy Southerland, a former top EPA scientist who conducted key health analyses on the chemicals for the agency’s drinking water division before retiring in 2017.


Around the Nation

FISH VS. FARMS — Nine East Coast states unveiled plans Monday to create a massive pot of money meant to temper one of the major obstacles facing offshore wind farms — opposition from the fishing industry.

Clean energy advocates tend to argue that localized fishery losses pale in comparison to the catastrophic damage climate change will do to ocean ecosystems, which clean wind energy is meant to help avoid. That’s been cold comfort to fishing interests worried that the farms and their infrastructure will harm their businesses.

The proposed fund could help resolve that tension. The idea has been floated before, but the feds have said they don’t have the authority to implement it. It would cover projects along the East Coast from Maine to Virginia, with the notable absence of Delaware. More here from POLITICO’s Ry Rivard.

GOOD FOR THE GOOSE — Abortion bans could be good for the climate?

A New York lawmaker is taking a page from Texas’ abortion playbook and proposing the creation of a private cause of action for individuals to sue fossil fuel companies for climate damages, writes POLITICO’s Marie J. French.

When courts uphold the Texas law, they’ll also be giving succor to an argument that could succeed where other suits alleging climate harms have failed to find traction.


You Tell Us

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What We’re Clicking

— The electric vehicle industry is up in arms over the prospect that the EU might label lithium as toxic, according to the Wall Street Journal.

— Biofuels advocates are worried about Iowa losing its status as the host of the first Democratic primary, E&E News’ Marc Heller reports.

— Pacific Gas & Electric needs to raise billions to fight wildfire risk — but its bankruptcy restructuring is getting in the way, the WSJ reports.