Definitions Get Caught in the Mix as Plastics Recycling Measures Gain Steam in the States

Legislation to advance the use of pyrolysis and gasification of plastics is gaining traction in the states. So far this year, lawmakers in Iowa, Tennessee, and Texas have enacted similar legislation, and legislation was introduced in Delaware.

Several other states enacted similar legislation prior to this year.

Recycling is mechanical and chemical, it is not incineration. One thing most agree upon is that burning is not recycling. ReMA has long held the position that incinerating recyclable commodities is not recycling and harms ReMA members by destroying valuable supply. Pyrolysis and gasification use high temperatures to convert post-use plastic polymers into recoverable feedstocks, leading to a common misconception that the technologies are similar or akin to waste incineration.

ISRI members have fought diligently over the years to avoid getting caught up in solid waste laws. As policymakers look to expand the range of options for keeping this plastic waste out of landfill, some are encouraging “plastic to energy” which unlocks the chemical energy stored in scrap plastic and uses it to create fuel – labeling it as recycling and thus exempt from certain solid waste laws. This has created confusion among recyclers and policymakers alike as to where this fits into the regulatory scheme.

Gasification and pyrolysis are completely different processes. The main goal of incineration is simply to destroy the waste, thus keeping it out of landfill. The heat released from incineration might be used to produce steam to drive a turbine and generate electricity, but this is only a by-product. Gasification and pyrolysis can produce electricity or fuels, and provide more flexible ways of storing energy than incineration. They also have much lower emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides than incineration.

As the first link in the manufacturing chain, scrap recyclers produce raw materials for use in the manufacturing of new goods. Is energy production a product of recycling? Some say yes, but others question that idea. This has led to legislation that potentially confuses the definition of recycling and recyclable materials that ReMA members have long had established in some state laws.

ISRI is in the process of developing definitions that properly describe the process ReMA members consider to be recycling. The importance of this effort is unmistakable. ReMA members must be able to clearly delineate our processes and products from solid waste in a manner in which policymakers understand and with which they agree. Unknown to many, federal law does not currently define “recycling” and states have been on their own to do so. This has led to a myriad of both good and bad descriptions written into law defining the scrap recycling industry. It is time to try to achieve consensus.


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