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09 • 01 • 2022

Plastic Industry’s Legislative Ploy to Expand Production by Burning the Problem They’ve Created

By Miho Ligare

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternative (GAIA), a nonprofit network uniting environmental justice efforts around the world to reduce waste and implement solutions to plastic pollution, has released a new report on the alarming trend of plastic burning, also known as “chemical/advanced recycling.” Specifically, the report provides a legislative update on the trend of new U.S. laws promoting the expansion of plastic burning by relaxing pollution regulations, providing subsidies and, in some cases, falsely defining burning practices as “recycling.” 

As the failures in recycling and the slew of harms caused by single-use plastics become increasingly documented, the plastics and fossil fuel industries – plastic is a fossil fuel-based product, after all – are turning to plastic burning to justify the need to continue the production of plastics. These facilities use incineration processes to break down plastic waste to create low-grade fuel that can purportedly then be used to make new plastics. The industry is focusing on burning plastic to solve their problem, so they can continue and even expand operations claiming they are doing it in a sustainable manner by burning plastics to create new “recycled” products. Sounds too good to be true, right? 

The reality of plastic burning is that it harms our communities and the environment. Uncontrolled pollution from these processes poses significant health and safety risks for local populations, placing a heavy toxic burden on workers and surrounding communities, the majority of which are low-income and communities of color.

Source: GAIA

In 2020, GAIA's first report identified eight statewide laws promoting plastic burning. Unfortunately, within two years, the count is up to 20 states and could be even higher in the future. A report by the American Chemistry Council highlights their continued commitment to weaken environmental legislation and allow for more plastic burning facilities, proposing to spend “$8.7 billion in investments for 83 new projects in advanced recycling and recovery, as well as mechanical recycling (as of April 2022), aimed at revolutionizing the use and reuse of plastic resources.” 

States with laws that redefine waste to exclude advanced/chemical ‘recycling’:

  1. Arizona
  2. Arkansas
  3. Florida
  4. Georgia
  5. Illinois
  6. Iowa
  7. Kentucky
  8. Louisiana
  9. Mississippi
  10. Missouri
  11. New Hampshire
  12. Ohio
  13. Oklahoma
  14. Pennsylvania
  15. South Carolina
  16. Tennessee
  17. Texas
  18. Virginia 
  19. West Virginia
  20. Wisconsin

Plastic burning is not the answer to addressing plastic pollution. What we need are solutions that benefit our communities and the environment, not industry-touted falsities that blame the plastic pollution problem on consumers and seek to hold on to the status quo. We need innovative, bold, and systematic solutions that create cultural shifts that prioritize refill and reuse and eliminate single-use plastics. We also need policymakers to advance progressive measures to hold producers responsible for the products they create while supporting community-based zero-waste initiatives that center on prevention, reduction and reuse.  

The good news is that we're all in this together, and everyone is welcome! You can: 

  • Join a local Surfrider Chapter or Student Club to take a stand against proposed plastic burning facilities and help protect our ocean, waves and beaches for all people. 
  • Voice your concerns to policymakers about the dangers of plastic burning (if you live in New Jersey, we have an active campaign right now!)
  • Support legislation that includes comprehensive policies that address plastic pollution at the source like the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.