Legislative Alert | Tracking Trends in Advanced/Chemical “Recycling”

In 2020, GAIA released an alert identifying an alarming trend: legislators were introducing bills to promote the expansion of so-called “chemical recycling” (also known as “advanced recycling”, “waste-to-fuel”, “waste-to-plastic,” “plastic transformation,” and “plastics renewal”), eight of which had been signed into law. This unproven waste management strategy is endorsed by the plastic industry via its lobbying arm, the American Chemistry Council. This alert is an update on that trend, which the petrochemical industry has accelerated. Since our first alert, eleven more states have passed such laws, bringing the total to 20 since 2017. These laws relax pollution regulations and/or provide subsidies for these facilities, with some explicitly defining them as recycling facilities, despite numerous reports from media, watchdog, and nonprofit groups concluding that they are little more than plastic burning. In addition to these threats, this alert contains suggested intervention points for advocates and highlights legislative approaches that counter the expansion of these technologies.

As companies increasingly come under pressure to reduce plastic, some are using “plastic neutrality” and similar
credit schemes to claim that they are not contributing to plastic pollution. The global plastics treaty provides an important opportunity to officially discourage or ban the use of plastic credits before they become widespread. Doing so would avoid the incredible amount of regulatory oversight needs —both in the private and public sectors— to organize and manage international plastic credit markets. The collective efforts could be better spent on reducing plastic production rapidly.

A transition from a plastic-reliant economy toward a circular zero waste economy requires effective mobilization
and allocation of financial resources. Public and private finance have distinct and intersecting roles to play in
supporting and scaling up innovations for waste prevention, redesign, alternative delivery and reuse systems as
well as improving existing waste collection and recycling systems.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies seek to improve the environmental and social performance of products by holding producers and brand owners accountable for the entire lifecycle of their products. The global plastics treaty must embed well-designed EPR policies in it, guiding producers to prioritize upstream solutions.

The global Plastics Treaty must focus on plastic reduction and reuse, instead of substituting a plastic single-use item for
a bio-based, biodegradable, or compostable one.

Faced with increasing pressure from lawmakers and civil society to reduce plastic production and greater awareness of the limits of mechanical recycling, the petrochemical industry has been peddling chemical “recycling” and “plastic-to-fuel” as a primary solution to plastic pollution. However, after billions of dollars and decades of development, these approaches do not work as advertised. A plastics treaty stands to be undermined if it embraces these industry-backed false solutions.

La contaminación por plásticos es ubicua. Está presente en los alimentos y el agua, en el aire que respiramos, en las profundidades de los océanos y en las montañas más remotas. Provoca daños a la salud humana y a los ecosistemas, y es portadora de sustancias nocivas que causan cáncer y otras enfermedades graves. Los plásticos también tienen un impacto enorme en el cambio climático – si fueran considerados como un país, los plásticos ocuparían el quinto lugar como causante de las emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero.

Plastic is a significant contributor to climate change throughout its lifecycle. By 2050, emissions from plastic alone will take up over a third of the remaining carbon budget for a 1.5 °C target. A plastics treaty must impose legally-binding plastic reduction targets.

Millions of people around the world have taken action to stop plastic pollution, and momentum is building! Soon, world leaders will gather to start negotiating a global plastics treaty—and we need to make sure it will be strong. The following briefing breaks down what would be needed for such a plastics treaty to succeed: it must be legally binding and address the entire life cycle of plastic.