‘Chemical recycling’ or hot garbage? Michigan proposal cooks up controversy
- Backers of a Newaygo facility promise to turn plastic trash into liquid fuel
- The venture follows controversial December changes to Michigan law to accommodate ‘chemical recycling’
- Opponents argue the technology is a smoke screen for industry to justify skyrocketing plastic production
Just months after Michigan lawmakers exempted a suite of plastic-reprocessing technologies dubbed “chemical recycling” from state solid waste regulations, two companies are prompting controversy with plans to deploy the technology in Newaygo.
California-based Clean-Seas, Inc. is partnering with Michigan building and recycling company American Classic to launch the $20 million facility, which promises to turn plastic trash into fuel that could be blended with diesel or used to make new plastic products.
Backers of the west Michigan proposal laud its potential to keep waste out of landfills through a process called pyrolysis, which involves superheating plastic in an oxygen-free environment to break its chemical bonds.
- Michigan lawmakers OK recycling reform. Critics call it ‘burning hot garbage’
- Senate may vote on long-awaited recycling reform. Which one is unclear.
- Michigan was once a leader at recycling. Today, it's the pits.
- Michigan offers $97 million for projects that can boost recycling
“We see ourselves as part of the puzzle” in dealing with the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste generated each year, said John Yonce, vice president of business development for Clean-Seas. “We're not the only solution by any means, but we think we serve a really important role.”
The chemical recycling industry is attracting scrutiny from environmentalists and some lawmakers who say the techniques often use massive amounts of energy to turn plastic into combustible fuels, while producing relatively little recycled plastic.
“Taking low grade, single-use plastic and burning it is not recycling,” said Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director for the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter.
Democrats who took control of the state Capitol in January say they are crafting legislation that could stop the plant from opening.
Controversial vote leads to new development
In announcing their plans, CleanSeas praised Michigan lawmakers for “creating a clear permitting pathway for the project,” a reference to a controversial December vote that distinguished chemical recycling in Michigan law.
Lawmakers had spent years negotiating reforms that aimed to boost Michigan’s recycling rate of 19 percent, which is far lower than the national average of 32 percent.
But before the package could get a Senate hearing, Republican Sen. Aric Nesbitt added last-minute language to define chemical recycling as a manufacturing process, legally distinct from incineration or solid waste management.
The change, backed by the industry group representing plastics manufacturers, irked some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But the bills passed, making Michigan one of 22 states that have created laws to accommodate the emerging industry.
Getting the distinction in writing was important to industry, said Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability for American Chemistry Council, as plastic manufacturers face pressure to reduce their environmental footprint.
“Ensuring that this process counts as recycling, and it's not seen as solid waste disposal, is very important as brand owners and others are looking to fulfill those recycling mandates and claims to their customers,” Cookson said.
Jeff Johnston, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said the change does not affect how the state regulates chemical recyling. That’s because operations that manage source-separated materials (like plastic that has been sorted from other trash) were never considered incineration or solid waste facilities under Michigan law.
With Democrats now in control of the Legislature, Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Keego Harbor, said she is crafting legislation to strike the chemical recycling provisions from Michigan law, hoping to stop the Newaygo development.
“We want to let them know right away that that’s not going to work here,” Bayer said.
“There's no evidence that this is a good thing, either environmentally, or even from a business perspective,” she added.
Instead, she wants Michigan to tax the production and sale of single-use plastics, using the money to build out better mechanical recycling infrastructure.
That’s the more common technique of shredding yogurt containers and milk jugs, then recombining them to create things like park benches and trash bins. It has a far lower energy footprint than chemical recycling, but can’t be used on all types of plastic.
A separate bill by Sen. Sue Shink, D-Northfield Township, would repeal a 2016 law passed with Republican support that prohibits local governments from banning plastic grocery bags. If successful, the bill would pave the way for local governments to put their own limits on single-use plastics.
It’s unclear whether Bayer’s efforts will gain traction with fellow Democrats who have a packed agenda and narrow majority.
Nesbitt, who is now Senate minority leader, said he wants to let the laws “be implemented and play out before exploring any changes.”
In Newaygo,the city council unanimously approved the plan, which received no early pushback from local environmental groups. The facility eventually could support 60 new jobs, company officials said.
If all goes according to plan, the companies estimate opening as soon as late this year, processing 50 tons of plastic daily with plans to eventually increase production tenfold.
They’re targeting industrial plastics like shrink wraps and rigid packaging, along with some household waste. Yonce of Clean-Seas said the facility will get its feedstock from Michigan at first, possibly importing some from out-of-state once production expands.
The development comes amid a push for solutions to society’s vast plastic waste problem. Just 9 percent of the world’s plastic is recycled.
Meanwhile, global plastic production has nearly doubled since the millennium, to 391 million metric tons annually. That’s the equivalent weight of more than 2,000 cruise ships, and the number is expected to double again by the end of this decade.
Beyond crowding landfills and polluting rivers and oceans, exploding plastic production cements society’s dependence on the fossil fuels from which plastics are derived, even as renewable energy reduces demand for oil and gas.
Chemical recycling backers tout the technology as a needed solution to the inevitable waste. Opponents call it greenwashing, a term for business efforts promoted as environmentally friendly but involve environmentally destructive practices.
“Chevron, BP and Exxon Mobil want to massively expand plastics production in order to offset the losses they're going to be feeling in transportation,” McGillivray said. “And in order to justify that, they need fake recycling.”
Recycling or repurposing?
Pyrolysis, the heat-based process to be used in Newaygo, is one among many techniques that fall under the chemical recycling umbrella.
“They’re not all created equal,” said Taylor Eukert, a scientist with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a federal lab that researches and develops technology to decarbonize society.
Eukert coauthored a January study comparing several recycling techniques. From an environmental and cost perspective, she said, pyrolysis “would score on the lower end.”
That’s in part because it’s inefficient, often requiring more energy to break down plastic than the amount contained in the fuel it produces.
Half of the plastic fed into the Newaygo plant would be transformed into a gas, which would then be burned on-site to heat the rest into a low-sulfur oil that CleanSeas plans to sell, said Dan Bates, CEO of Clean-Seas’ parent company, Clean Vision Corp. Project backers hope to eventually produce hydrogen too.
“It's an emissions-free process,” he said. “There's no flare, there's no fumes. There's nothing that would affect the environment or the neighbors might object to.”
Yonce said Clean-Seas officials don’t see themselves as a recycler so much as a “divert and convert” solution for the many plastics that can’t be mechanically recycled. Today, those products are landfilled, burned, or shipped overseas.
“It’s not a good result,” he said.
But opponents note that the chemical recycling technologies purporting to tackle that challenge often come with pollution problems of their own, and are largely unproven on a large scale: Some plants have been shut down amid trouble getting the right feedstock, and a company recently scrapped plans for a $680 million facility in Georgia after failing to prove it could create a marketable product.
“At the scale that the oil industry wants, there's no world where we safely recycle petrochemicals,” McGillivray said.
Eukert estimated less than 10 percent of plastic that enters a typical plant is turned back into plastic constituents. That’s far less than mechanical recycling that’s common across the country.
Bates cites success in Morocco, where a Clean-Seas facility is producing fuel for a local gas distributor. The company has not identified a buyer for its Newaygo product, he said, but is in talks with “many multinational oil companies.”
Michigan Environment Watch
Michigan Environment Watch examines how public policy, industry, and other factors interact with the state’s trove of natural resources.
Michigan Health Watch is made possible by generous financial support from:
Our generous Environment Watch underwriters encourage Bridge Michigan readers to also support civic journalism by becoming Bridge members. Please consider joining today.
See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:
- “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
- “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
- “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.
If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!