What is “Advanced Recycling?” The Ugly Truth is a Smoke-and-Mirrors Act

Disposable, plastic form set on fire is melting and smoking.
The fossil fuel industry’s “advanced recycling” campaign isn’t about recycling at all. Or waste. Or even plastic pollution. It’s all about plastic production, which fossil fuel giants increasingly see as a lifeline. Photo Credit: Andy Shell via Shutterstock

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Deceptively named false solutions like “advanced recycling,” “chemical recycling,” and “molecular recycling” are nothing more than a magic act. Fossil fuel giants use smoke-and-mirrors to pretend that they’ve somehow made single-use plastics “sustainable.” But in reality, “advanced recycling” is just a different way to burn plastic. Meanwhile, the industry’s real goal is to keep us hooked on an unjust and polluting cycle of making and destroying plastic.

The Illusion is Not Reality

“Advanced recycling” sounds like a magical solution to our plastics problem. A futuristic approach to recycling that can make plastics “circular” by recycling them over and over again. The quick fix for our 5% plastics recycling rate.

But just like any other magic act, the illusion is not reality. In truth, deceptively named technologies, like “advanced recycling” and “chemical recycling,” are smoke-and-mirrors. One used by imposters to disguise the truth behind a campaign to make and burn single-use plastics.

Who’s responsible for this campaign? The fossil fuel industry, of course. Or oil, plastic, packaging, and petrochemical giants, if you prefer. They are, after all, one and the same. This behemoth industry desperately needs us to ignore the truth of “advanced recycling” and believe the myth. Because the truth is ugly and bad for business.

What truth are these con-artists trying to disguise? That “advanced recycling,” just like plastic production itself, is toxic, climate-damaging, and inequitable.

Greenwashing Designed to Obscure the Ugly Truth

“Advanced recycling,” “chemical recycling,” and “molecular recycling,” don’t refer to one process or technology. These umbrella terms, invented by the fossil fuel industry, refer to several different technologies that use heat and/or solvents to break down plastics. The industry uses these made-up phrases because they sound a lot rosier than “incineration,” “plastic-to-fuel,” or “high-heat plastics disposal.”

In theory, “advanced recycling” includes technologies like gasification, pyrolysis, depolymerization, solvolysis, methanolysis, and hydrolysis. Fossil fuel giants want us to believe that these technologies can break plastics into monomers (the building blocks of plastic, which are processed back into recycled plastics). But like the magic act, this theoretical vision doesn’t come close to matching the reality of “advanced recycling.”

In truth, every single commercial-scale “advanced recycling” facility in the U.S. uses either gasification or pyrolysis as part of a two-step plastic-burning process.

  • Step one: Melt and boil plastics into fuels, chemicals, and toxic waste byproducts.
  • Step two: Burn those fuels and chemicals on site, or ship them somewhere else to be burned.

No magic, just burning plastic.

The Scam to Ensure Plastic Production Survives

Fossil fuel giants wants us to believe that “advanced recycling” isn’t burning plastic. Yet, their lobbyists conveniently forget to mention that every single “advanced recycling” facility in the U.S. is making fuels and chemicals that end up being burned.

Take the Brightmark “advanced recycling” plant in Ashley, Indiana (backed by fossil fuel giants like Chevron and BP). Brightmark claims the plant is “creating innovative approaches to the plastics renewal process.” Yet, the company admits that 90% of the output from its Indiana plant is plastic-derived fuel, most of which it burns on site. What’s more, during a failed attempt to build another plastic-burning facility in Georgia, Brightmark was unable to demonstrate that its process recycles any plastic at all.

Another example: Agilyx in Tigard, Oregon. Agilyx insists it’s working to “make plastic circular” by “converting” polystyrene waste (what takeout containers are usually made from) into its monomer, styrene. That styrene can “in theory” be turned back into plastic – or so Agilyx claims. Yet between 2019 and 2021, Agilyx sent more than 340,000 pounds of styrene to be burned offsite.

The two-step burning process used by Brightmark, Agilyx, and every other “advanced recycling” facility is toxic and climate-damaging. And it won’t solve plastic pollution. To the contrary, the very purpose of “advanced recycling” is to help fossil fuel giants make more and more plastic.

A Deceitful and Unjust Lobbying Campaign

The fossil fuel industry’s “advanced recycling” campaign isn’t about recycling at all. Or waste. Or even plastic pollution. It’s all about plastic production, which fossil fuel giants increasingly see as a lifeline. The industry wants to use the “advanced recycling” myth to convince lawmakers to reject overwhelmingly popular laws that stop plastic pollution at its source.

Here’s how the campaign works: The fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists pressure states across the country to pass laws that classify “advanced recycling” facilities as “manufacturing” plants, rather than waste or recycling facilities. Why? Because manufacturing plants aren’t subject to the same government oversight, siting restrictions, or public permitting processes as waste facilities. And without those regulations in the way, fossil fuel giants can build as many “advanced recycling” facilities as they want – and quickly.

Fossil fuel giants don’t care that these regulations are meant to protect communities. And they don’t care that their strategy makes ZERO sense. After all, the industry claims that “advanced recycling” facilities are the answer to plastic waste and that this plastic-burning technology is an innovative form of recycling. So why should states regulate these facilities any differently than other waste and recycling facilities?

Sadly, 20 states have fallen to the industry’s misinformation campaign so far. And fossil fuel lobbyists, like the American Chemistry Council, continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in each state that it pushes for these deregulatory laws – including New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Kentucky, South Carolina, and dozens more.

“Advanced Recycling” Leads to Environmental Injustice

The cost of fossil fuel giants’ plastic greenwashing campaign doesn’t fall equally on all communities. In 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency published a list of 40 planned and operational gasification and pyrolysis facilities. More than half are in or near communities of color, low-income communities, and communities with limited English-speaking proficiency. The fact is, “advanced recycling” is no different than other forms of waste-burning – historically marginalized communities are hit first and worst.

The cycle of injustice and environmental racism, however, extends far beyond the neighborhoods in which “advanced recycling” facilities are built. The plastic that serves as the “feedstock” for these facilities disproportionately harms Black and brown communities at every stage – through extraction, production, consumption, and disposal. And the petrochemical plants that typically burn the chemicals and fuels produced at “advanced recycling” plants? Those too, are more likely to be in communities of color and low-income communities.

What’s more, the deregulatory laws that make it easier to build “advanced recycling” facilities also make it easier for the fossil fuel industry to disempower environmental justice communities. In fact, the industry now targets specific historically overburdened communities in legislation.

Environmental racism is deeply embedded in the fossil fuel industry’s business model. “Advanced recycling” is no different.

It’s Time to Shatter the Illusion

“Advanced recycling” means more plastics in our lives. It results in more fossil fuels pulled from the ground. More dirty petrochemical facilities to turn those fossil fuels into plastics. More facilities turning those plastics into fuels and chemicals. And more incinerators burning those fuels and chemicals.

That’s the way fossil fuel giants want it. Because more plastic means bigger profits. And now, the more plastic they burn, the more money they make. The fossil fuel industry wants to use the illusion of “advanced recycling” to pretend that they’ve “closed the loop” and made plastic safe, clean, and climate friendly.

So, what is “advanced recycling?” Greenwashing. Burning plastic. A fossil fuel lobbying campaign. Injustice. Environmental racism. Really, all of the above.

It’s time to expose the illusion for what it is. And it’s time for real Zero Waste reforms that get rid of wasteful single-use plastics once and for all – instead of locking us into an ugly and unjust cycle of making and burning as much plastic as possible. Sign up for Just Zero emails to stay in-the-know on this issue.

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