US recycling bill seeks moratorium on new crackers, plastic plants

Author: Al Greenwood

2020/02/12

HOUSTON (ICIS)--A US recycling bill introduced to the nation's legislature includes a temporary moratorium on building new plants that would produce olefins and plastics.

The bill, called "The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act" was proposed by US Senators Tom Udall (Democrat- New Mexico) and Jeff Merkley (Democrat-Oregon) as well as US Representative Alan Lowenthal (Democrat-California).

The bill is unlikely to pass since it would need approval from the Republican-controlled US Senate and the president.

Much of the bill addresses plastic recycling and plastic bans.

However, the fifth portion of the bill proposes a temporary moratorium on plants that convert natural gas liquids (NGLs) into ethylene and propylene. This would include crackers and propane dehydrogenation (PDH) units.

The moratorium would also cover plastic polymerisation plants and polymer production plants. The bill specified polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), but it was unclear if the moratorium would cover plants that make other polymers.

The last class of plants covered by the moratorium are those that apparently break down plastics into chemical feedstocks to be used in new products or fuel.

The moratorium would start when the bill takes effect and end when other parts of the bill take effect.

One of those parts requires the plants to uses emission-free energy sources. This requirement would take waste-gas recycling into account.

Other parts of the bill impose stricter air- and water-pollution standards on chemical plants.

Until those new rules are in effect, the plants covered by the moratorium cannot receive permits under the US Clean Air Act or the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.

The recycling portion of the bill does the following:

  • Assigns responsibility for plastic pollution to large companies.
  • Requires companies that make plastic products to develop, manage and pay for waste and recycling programmes.
  • Encourages large companies to use recyclable and reusable products.
  • Reduces and bans some single-use plastic products that are not recyclable.
  • Requires beverage containers, packaging and food-service products to use a minimum amount of recycled content.
  • Encourages investments into recycling centres and composting infrastructure.

In a statement, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said that a moratorium on new plastic plants would limit domestic manufacturing growth, jobs, tax revenue and other benefits.

"Society needs plastics to live more sustainably. Plastics make our cars lighter and more fuel efficient and our homes more energy efficient while significantly lowering our carbon footprint," the ACC said.

Moratoriums or bans are rarely the best solution, even when they are temporary, said James Ray, ICIS vice president of consulting - Americas.

"What we need is leadership, factual information and incentives to recycle. Going too far, too fast could do more harm than good," Ray said.

He warned that many of the alternatives to plastics, such as paper bags and straws, generate far more carbon dioxide (CO2).

Indeed, the ACC cited a study from Trucost, which found that replacing plastics with alternatives in packaging and consumer goods would rise environmental costs by nearly fourfold.

"The solutions need to be innovative and economically viable," Ray said.  "We need unbiased, government-led studies to determine what the alternatives will be and their impact on the environment as well as the economy. Only then, can we decide the best course of action."

A good starting point is developing infrastructure to recover plastics, Ray said. "A refundable single-use deposit is one way to develop this, but not the only way. Capturing the full lifecycle cost in single-use containers is another way that will drive good decisions."

Thumbnail image shows an Indian worker sorting plastic bottles at a recycling unit in Dharavi, Mumbai, India. Photo by Divyakant Solanki/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock