EPA Spurns Trump-Era Effort to Drop Clean-Air Protections For Plastic Waste Recycling

Reversing its own Trump-era proposal, the Environmental Protection Agency has spurned a lobbying effort by the chemical industry to relax clean-air regulations on two types of chemical or “advanced” recycling of plastics. 

The decision, announced by the EPA on May 24, covers pyrolysis and gasification, two processes that use chemical methods to break down plastic waste. Both have largely been regulated as incineration for nearly three decades and have therefore had to meet stringent emission requirements for burning solid waste under the federal Clean Air Act. 

But in the final months of the Trump administration, the EPA proposed an industry-friendly rule change in August 2020 stating that pyrolysis does not involve enough oxygen to constitute combustion, and that emissions from the process should therefore not be regulated as incineration.

Pyrolysis, or the process of decomposing materials at high temperatures in an oxygen-free environment, has been around for centuries. Traditional uses have ranged from making tar from timber for wooden ships to transforming coal into coke for steelmaking.

Today, the chemical industry is looking to pyrolysis as a way to convert plastic waste into synthetic gases, char residue, and a type of oil that can then be turned into fuel or chemical feedstocks. (Gasification is similar to pyrolysis but uses some oxygen.)

Proponents argue that pyrolysis works with plastics that are otherwise difficult to recycle, providing an alternative to typical mechanical methods like shredding, melting and remolding the waste into new products. The industry has marshaled such arguments in lobbying state legislatures across the country to pass laws that incentivize the development of a chemical recycling industry for plastics.

The world is making twice as much plastic waste as it did two decades ago, with most of the discarded material buried in landfills, burned in incinerators or dumped into the environment, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a forum for developed nations. 

Annual production of plastic is expected to triple by 2060 to 1.23 billion metric tons yearly, with OECD countries like the U.S. producing far more per person than their counterparts in Africa and Asia. Only 9 percent of plastic waste is successfully recycled, the organization reports. 

Responding to growing concern, the chemical industry has championed what it calls advanced recycling. But government scientists have questioned the supposed environmental benefits of the chemical recycling of plastic waste as well as the technology’s commercial viability, at least in the short term.

Democratic Lawmakers Prevailed

The EPA’s 2020 proposal to ease its rules, which was related to how the agency regulates municipal waste combustion units, drew sharp criticism from environmentalists and Democrats in Congress. They argued that pyrolysis and gasification were indeed a form of combustion—and that abandoning strict regulation of those processes in chemical recycling would present health risks while failing to address the plastic waste crisis.

“Instead of leading to the recovery of plastic and supporting the transition to a circular economy, pyrolysis and gasification lead to the release of more harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases,” 35 lawmakers wrote the EPA last summer. They urged the agency to fully regulate the emissions from chemical recycling as waste combustion and to cease efforts to promote the technology as a solution to the global plastics crisis. 

Among those signing the letter were the House Democrats Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Jared Huffman of California, the Democratic senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent. “Chemical recycling contributes to our growing climate crisis and leads to toxic air emissions that disproportionately impact vulnerable communities,” the legislators wrote.

In a new fact sheet posted on the EPA’s website, the agency noted that it had “received significant adverse comments” on the provision it had put forward during the Trump administration. In taking final action to withdraw the proposal, the agency said it would “prevent any regulatory gaps and ensure that public health protections are maintained.” 

In a notice to be published in the Federal Register, the EPA left the door open to changing its mind later. It said it has received 170 comments on the 2020 proposal and that it was “evident that pyrolysis is a complex process that is starting to be used in many and varied industries.” The agency said it would need significant time and personnel to analyze the comments and other information to gain a full understanding of pyrolysis.

The American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group that is working to advance policies that promote chemical recycling, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But last summer, Joshua Baca, vice president for plastics at the council, said that the regulatory changes were necessary.

“The appropriate regulation of this is really critical if you want to scale advanced recycling, and you want to use more recycled material in your products,” Baca said. 

The lobbying group has also helped persuade 24 states, most recently Indiana in April, to pass legislation recognizing advanced recycling as manufacturing rather than waste management,  another path toward easing regulation of the fledgling industry.

Environmental advocates celebrated the EPA’s decision, saying it would help their groups and local communities fight for cleaner air amid the expansion of chemical recycling.

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Still, they noted that some loopholes remained, including the steps taken by nearly half the states in the U.S. to relax rules. By holding firm on the regulation of incineration, the EPA is giving communities and environmentalists legal ammunition to fight recycling plants that use pyrolysis or gasification, the advocates said.

“This is a big deal,” said James Pew, director of clean air practice at the environmental group Earthjustice. The abandoned proposal “would have reversed the regulatory definition that has been in place since 1995,” he noted, “and its effect would have been that pyrolysis and gasification incinerators do not have to install pollution controls, meet emission limits, or monitor or report their pollution.” 

“They wouldn’t be accountable to the communities where they operate, or anyone else,” Pew said. “That is why the industry was pushing so hard for this redefinition.” Even the state laws that have been passed with a goal similar to what Trump’s EPA was seeking do not supersede the Clean Air Act, he added.

Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, an environmental group, said the EPA’s decision would be an important safeguard as pressure for chemical recycling grows. 

“The fossil fuel industry will have to get permits and follow an emission speed limit if it wants to polka dot the country with a new fleet of plastic incinerators,” she said.

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                    James Bruggers                  </a>


                <h4 class="profile-subtitle">Reporter, Southeast, National Environment Reporting Network</h4>

                James Bruggers covers the U.S. Southeast, part of Inside Climate News’ National Environment Reporting Network. He previously covered energy and the environment for Louisville’s Courier Journal, where he worked as a correspondent for USA Today and was a member of the USA Today Network environment team. Before moving to Kentucky in 1999, Bruggers worked as a journalist in Montana, Alaska, Washington and California. Bruggers’ work has won numerous recognitions, including best beat reporting, Society of Environmental Journalists, and the National Press Foundation’s Thomas Stokes Award for energy reporting. He served on the board of directors of the SEJ for 13 years, including two years as president. He lives in Louisville with his wife, Christine Bruggers.

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