Plastic recycling: ‘Advanced’ method may not live up to its hype


In places like Baytown, Texas, ExxonMobil and others in the petrochemical industry are moving to expand an approach to plastic waste that they call “advanced recycling.”

Prior to an industry rebrand, the method was referred to as chemical recycling, an energy-intensive process that uses high heat or chemical reactions (or both) to turn plastic waste into new plastic materials or fuels. This stands in contrast to methods in which plastics are melted down but complex molecules remain intact to be reused in new products. 

Why We Wrote This

“Advanced recycling” is an industry label for turning old plastics into new uses. But the bigger need – from both waste and emissions standpoints – may be to reduce single-use plastics in the first place.

The expansion of advanced recycling comes as citizens globally are awakening to what many see as a crisis of plastic-waste pollution. Beyond the solid-waste stream, the climate implications are also large. The domestic plastics industry is responsible for annual emissions equal to 116 coal-fired power plants, according to a recent analysis by Beyond Plastics. By 2025, that equivalent could reach up to 150 coal-fired plants. 

“Innovation is good. I don’t think we should discourage innovation,” says Sarah Morath, an expert at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “But I think we should be thinking about innovating at the beginning and not the end of plastics’ life.”

Baytown, Texas

Baytown, Texas, is a city that stands in the shadow of the nation’s oil and gas industry. Located only 26 miles from Houston, it’s been home to an arm of the Gulf Coast petroleum corridor for more than a century. Look to the western horizon from Baytown’s east side in the evening and you’ll see a smear of orange, red, and yellow pastels blending into the Texas sunset, as it slips away behind the nation’s largest petroleum refinery.   

The city is also among the key sites for the oil and gas industry’s next significant pivot. 

ExxonMobil has already broken ground on an operational “advanced recycling” facility that it hopes to open next year. The operation is expected to be among the continent’s largest, with a capacity to recycle up to 30,000 metric tons of plastic waste annually. And it’s part of a petrochemical industry trend with global scope. ExxonMobil is building a similar facility in Notre Dame de Gravenchon, France, for example.

Why We Wrote This

“Advanced recycling” is an industry label for turning old plastics into new uses. But the bigger need – from both waste and emissions standpoints – may be to reduce single-use plastics in the first place.

The idea is to expand heat-intensive recycling methods for materials that aren’t amenable to more traditional recycling. 

This may sound like a win for the environment – a way to responsibly handle waste at a time when China is doing less of the world’s recycling than it used to. The industry’s expansion, however, is being met with skepticism by many recycling experts, who cite a lack of evidence demonstrating advanced recycling’s effectiveness. 



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