N.H. welcomes ‘advanced recycling’ of plastics

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It looked like a potential boon for New Hampshire’s North Country: a start-up company, Prima America Corp., that aimed to convert plastics into diesel fuel. 

In 2020, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., talked up the Groveton plant’s potential on a tour of the facility with a television news team. A company representative said the plan was to bring in enough plastic from throughout the region to produce thousands of gallons of sulfur-free diesel fuel a week. 

But three years later, Prima America is still in what Richard Perry, a company manager, calls “the test phase.” While they can make fuel, he said, “we’re still trying to refine it for diesel engines and to make it a lot cheaper. It’s so expensive right now it wouldn’t be economical.”

At the same time, the company has a history of non-compliance with state environmental regulatory rules. For example, an inspection of above-ground petroleum storage tanks at the facility found numerous deficiencies, and in at least one year, the company failed to file the required emissions report on time, according to state Department of Environmental Services records.

Skeptics of the chemical conversion of plastic waste point to Prima America’s rocky start as an example of why New Hampshire ought to be more cautious about welcoming so-called “advanced recycling” facilities into the state. The relatively new practice generates hazardous waste and air pollutants, and remains unproven at scale, critics say.

Last year, at the behest of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association, New Hampshire became the only state in New England to classify so-called “advanced recycling” facilities for plastics as manufacturing operations, rather than as more tightly regulated solid waste management operations. Connecticut and Rhode Island rejected similar proposals.

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The American Chemistry Council maintains that advanced recycling is a form of manufacturing, one that is “a game-changer.” 

“By taking hard-to-recycle used plastics and remaking them into virgin-quality new plastics, advanced recycling decreases the need to make plastics from virgin feedstocks while reducing waste sent to landfills and incinerators,” said Joshua Baca, the council’s vice president of plastics, in an emailed statement.

Environmental advocates want more regulation. This year, a bill that drew support from nearly 200 individuals calls for the state Department of Environmental Services to write rules for the permitting of advanced recycling facilities. The department would also be required to consider the cumulative impacts of such a facility on public health and the environment in combination with pollution from other sources.

“The Conservation Law Foundation’s concern is that with the exemption established last session, New Hampshire is essentially rolling out the welcome mat for these technologies,” said Tom Irwin, vice president and director of the foundation’s New Hampshire office. “We want to ensure that New Hampshire has all the rules it needs to protect the public health if, in fact, a facility is proposed.”

But last week the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee amended the bill to instead ask the department to hire someone to explore the subject of cumulative impact analyses and whether they ought to be included in all of their permitting practices. 

“It’s small-bore — it’s not sufficient, but it’s a good start,” said Roger W. Stephenson, Northeast regional advocacy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Critics say advanced recycling boosters overlook toxic byproducts

Advanced recycling is an umbrella term that refers to a range of technologies that employ chemicals to convert plastic waste back into its molecular building blocks. Pyrolysis and gasification use high temperatures and low-oxygen conditions to produce an oil or gas that can be refined into fuels. Solvents and chemicals are also used to dissolve plastic waste and process them into new plastics. 

There are currently seven plastic-to-plastic advanced recycling facilities operating in the U.S., according to Baca. Others are in the works: ExxonMobil has announced plans to build up to 500,000 metric tons of advanced recycling capacity in the U.S. and abroad by the end of 2026.

The American Chemistry Council touts the technology as a sustainable solution to dealing with the 90% of plastic waste that is not mechanically recycled but is instead incinerated, landfilled or dumped in the environment. 

But there’s a problem, said Cynthia Walter, a retired biologist in Dover who used to teach toxicology and has studied advanced recycling. 

“The methods have not been carefully reviewed for the toxicity of the inputs, of the emissions, or of the final products that get sold,” Walter said.

For example, she said, dioxin, a highly toxic carcinogen, is a well-known product of heating plastic waste material. 

“I think toxic substances could be in the fuels that these folks are looking to sell, and dioxins could be unknowingly released in the burning of those fuels,” she said. 

A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that most of the existing advanced recycling facilities are not actually recycling plastic but are turning plastic into fuel that is then burned, and generating air pollutants and large quantities of hazardous waste in the process.

The Environmental Protection Agency has opened a docket to study whether it ought to develop regulations specific to pyrolysis and gasification units.  

In the meantime, 21 states, including Virginia, have adopted laws to classify advanced recycling facilities as manufacturing operations. Classifying them that way “helps ensure the most appropriate regulations” for human health and environmental protection are applied, and helps provide the regulatory certainty the industry needs to confidently invest in the technology, Baca said. 

But the industry has struggled to successfully deploy the technology at a commercial scale. Last year, for example, Brightmark Energy canceled plans to build a $680 million chemical recycling facility in Macon, Georgia. The deal collapsed after Brightmark failed to demonstrate to Macon authorities that it was shipping products from its Indiana facility to any downstream customers. 

Rhode Island legislation would prohibit new plastics recycling facilities

Rhode Island is considering banning the facilities altogether. Legislation proposed by state Rep. Michelle McGaw, a Democrat representing Little Compton, Tiverton and Portsmouth, would prohibit any type of new high-heat processing facility in the state. 

“Pyrolysis requires a lot of fuel to keep temperatures high, and it doesn’t make toxic, polluting chemicals disappear,” McGaw said in a press release. “It’s not the panacea that the plastic industry wants us to think it is, and I doubt there are many Rhode Islanders who would welcome this type of facility in their town.”

New Hampshire’s law classifying the facilities as manufacturers is a little more stringent than most. It prohibits any new advanced recycling facility from making fuels to be offered for sale. Prima America doesn’t qualify as advanced recycling under that definition.

The amendment was added after representatives from the paper industry, which has made “enormous strides in the percent of post-consumer product they recycle,” argued that turning plastics into fuel for resale isn’t really recycling, said Rep. Peter Bixby, D-Dover, who sits on the House Environment and Agriculture Committee.

“That aspect puts us in a stronger position than do the laws in some other states,” Bixby said. 

When this year’s legislation, as amended by the Senate, comes before his committee, Bixby said he hopes to increase its scope beyond the subject of cumulative impacts to ask the department to also look at the types of contaminants that are released from advanced recycling plants — as opposed to the industry itself — and assess whether the state’s current regulations “are up to the task.”

Irwin, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said they are concerned that the promotion of advanced recycling by fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil is another way to mislead the public into believing that most plastics are being recycled. He noted that the California attorney general is conducting an investigation into what the office says is a longstanding “campaign of deception” by the plastics industry to convince the public that “we could recycle our way out of the plastic waste problem.”

Still, Bixby said, given the scope of the plastics waste problem, he is hopeful that backers of advanced recycling will be able to demonstrate that it can be safe and effective. 

“It’s complicated,” he said. “The American Chemical Council will tell you advanced recycling is going to save the world, and the Conservation Law Foundation is going to tell you it’s the devil incarnate. I think the truth is somewhere in between.”

Rich countries export twice as much plastic waste to the developing world as previously thought

High-income countries have long sent their waste abroad to be thrown away or recycled — and an independent team of experts says they’re inundating the developing world with much more plastic than previously estimated.

According to a new analysis published last week, United Nations data on the global waste trade fails to account for “hidden” plastics in textiles, contaminated paper bales, and other categories, leading to a dramatic, 1.8-million-metric-ton annual underestimate of the amount of plastic that makes its way from the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States to poor countries. The authors highlight the public health and environmental risks that plastic exports pose in the developing world, where importers often dump or incinerate an unmanageable glut of plastic waste.

“Toxic chemicals from these plastics are poisoning communities,” said Therese Karlsson, a science and technical adviser for the nonprofit International Pollutant Elimination Network, or IPEN. IPEN helped coordinate the analysis along with an international team of researchers from Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S.

Many estimates of the scale of the plastic waste trade make use of a U.N. database that tracks different types of products through a “harmonized commodity description and coding system,” which assigns each product category a code starting with the letters HS. HS 3915 — “waste, parings, and scrap” of plastics — is often assumed by researchers and policymakers to describe the total volume of plastic that’s traded globally. But the new analysis argues this is only “the tip of the plastic waste iceberg,” since HS 3915 misses large quantities of plastic that are included in other product categories.

Discarded clothing, for example, may be tracked as HS 5505 and not counted as plastic waste, even though 60 to 70 percent of all textiles are made of some kind of plastic. And another category called HS 6309 — used clothing and accessories — is assumed by the U.N. to be reused or recycled and is therefore not considered waste at all, even though an estimated 40 percent of these exported clothes are deemed unsalvageable and end up dumped in landfills.

Plastic contamination in paper bales — the huge stacks of unsorted paper that are shipped abroad to be recycled — also tends to be overlooked in estimates of the international plastic waste trade, even though these bales may contain 5 to 30 percent plastic that must be removed and discarded.

Accounting for plastic from just these two product categories increases plastic waste exports from all the regions analyzed by as much as 1.8 million metric tons per year — 1.3 million from paper bales and half a million from textiles. That’s more than double the plastic that’s counted when only plastic “waste, parings, and scrap” are analyzed.

Additional product categories like electronics and rubber add even more to the global plastic waste trade, although Karlsson said a lack of data makes it hard to quantify their exact contribution. All this plastic strains developing countries’ waste management infrastructure, leading to large quantities of plastic waste ending up in dumps, landfills, or incinerators. Burning this waste causes hazardous air pollution for nearby communities, and dumps and landfills can leach chemicals like PCBs — a group of compounds that can cause cancer in humans — into soil and water supplies.

More than 10,000 chemicals are used in the production of plastic, and one-fourth of them have been flagged by researchers for their toxicity and potential to build up in the environment and in people’s bodies. The report calls for greater transparency from plastic and petrochemical industries about the chemicals they put in their plastic products, and for regulators to require them to use fewer, nontoxic chemicals.

Karlsson also called for a total ban on the global plastic waste trade, along with enforceable limits on the amount of plastics the world makes in the first place. “Regardless of what way we’re handling plastic waste, we need to decrease the amount of plastics that we generate,” she told Grist, “because the amount of plastic waste being produced today will never be sustainable.”

Without aggressive action to phase down plastic production, the world is on track to have produced a cumulative 26 billion metric tons of plastic waste by 2050, most of which will be incinerated, dumped, or sent to landfills.

How our love affair with plastic is fouling a national park

New Zealand’s newest national park – and one of the most isolated spots in the country – is polluted with plastic trash. Andrea Vance and Iain McGregor investigate. This story is featured on Stuff’s The Long Read podcast. Check it out by hitting the play button below, or find it on podcast apps like Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts. There they were, rustling in the red tussock. A pair of Rakiura tokoeka, the elusive Stewart Island brown kiwi, oblivious to the gleeful trampers, watching their every move for close to half an hour. For Harry Pearson and Jan Jordan, this was the capstone of the perfect holiday. A long stretch of summer spent tramping through New Zealand’s wilderness; a joyous journey through forests, alps, even swimming with Hector’s dolphins in Southland’s vast Te Waewae Bay. The isolated West Coast of Stewart Island was the final leg, the Nelson couple drawn by dreams of spotting a kiwi in the wild. READ MORE:* Desert Island Dump, part three: “Stolen from Talley’s”* Desert Island Dump, part two: The big haul* Desert Island Dump, part one: Shipwrecked But the thrill was short-lived. In the heart of Rakiura National Park, the national icon shares its home with tonnes of plastic rubbish and man-made marine debris. “It’s just really upsetting,” Jordan says. “I had no idea we had so much waste coming up on to our seashores. It’s so sad. I can’t help thinking of all the wildlife we’ve seen.”Iain McGregor/StuffMason Bay is recognised as one of the best places to spot kiwi in their natural habitat. Mason Bay is a mecca for nature lovers and bird watchers, a 14km crescent of sand and an expansive swathe of dunes sweeping back from shore into the island’s forest and peatlands. Wild, extraordinary, and not permanently inhabited since the late 1980s, it is home to more kiwi than Kiwi. More than 40km from the nearest settlement – Oban has just 400 residents – it can be reached only by hiking, or by plane, a little Cessna 185 that bumps down on the sand at low tide. But its remoteness has afforded the beach no protection from humanity’s destructive, disposable culture.Iain McGregor/StuffPlastic junk is carried on powerful ocean currents, finally resting on Mason Bay’s enormous sand dunes. Wave after wave pummels the shore, washing up discarded plastic that has swirled into the Southern Ocean from all across the Pacific Rim. The ghosts of dead fishing gear crunch underfoot. Cracked craypots, frayed ropes entwined with seaweed and buoys wedged in wind-sculpted boulders lie bleached and parched by the sun. Luminous floats line the bush-sheltered track from the bay to a Department of Conservation hut, strung up like Christmas ornaments to mark the 15-minute route. Pale blue plastic tubs marked ‘Stolen from Talley’s’ are set at regular intervals on the shore line. The fish bins – used by inshore fishing vessels to transport a catch to processing factories – hold flotsam collected by visitors to the beach. Metres of blue ribbon laces through the dunes – it is plastic packing tape used to secure bait boxes. Known officially as abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) – between 500,000 and 1 million tons of marine waste tumbles into the seas from industrial fishing vessels each year.Iain McGregor/StuffA buoy, made by a Taiwanese plastics company, lies in granite boulders and drift wood. The soft sand is speckled with every kind of household item – a dust pan, sandals, a marker pen, toothbrushes, bottles, the ring from a barbecue, half a plastic rubbish bin. Torn sweet packets and sauce bottles come from as far away as Korea, Japan and California. The shoreline has also caught larger items – a car door, sun bed, and plastic drums – weathered and broken from ocean travel.Iain McGregor/StuffA hairbrush lies under sand and seaweed. Buried in the granules are lumpen blobs. At first glance they could be ambergris – valuable whale vomit used in the making of perfume. But these pebbles are worthless pyroplastics, likely the melted remnants of trash burnt at sea. Blue, green, purple and yellow shards are scattered as shells. Tiny dots of plastic are as ubiquitous as the island’s biting sandflies, littering each new high tide mark with a fresh rainbow of deadly pollution. Wet shopping bags – banned in New Zealand in 2019 – slump into the swash like deflated, dying jellyfish.Iain McGregor/StuffAn oystercatcher feeds near a newly washed-up plastic drum lid. This is what is visible. But the problem goes deeper – the bulk of pollution is disintegrating, unseen, into the sand. That’s because plastics don’t break down, they break up, finally becoming microplastics, defined as less than 5mm in diameter, and nanoplastics (less than 0.001mm). These are then ingested by organisms like plankton, sending the particles up the food chain. The detritus doesn’t surprise Canterbury University environmental chemist Sally Gaw: “The presence of macro and microplastics on remote beaches tells us that plastics are everywhere, that there isn’t anywhere that hasn’t been touched by our love affair with plastic.”Iain McGregor/StuffA pipit rests at the high tide mark, strewn with tiny pieces of plastic debris. The fragments are everywhere scientists have looked: from the bottom of the deepest ocean trench, to Antarctic ice, the air that we breathe, and even human blood. Alex Aves, also of Canterbury University, discovered plastic particles in fresh snow from the frozen continent – a moment she describes as “staggering”. She is now analysing samples from remote areas to better understand airborne microplastic. “Microplastics have been found all throughout human bodies, and we know that the smaller they get, the more damage they can do,” she says.Iain McGregor/StuffTrampers gather larger pieces of rubbish and leave them on the beach in the hope they’ll be collected. The problem with plastic Humans have been using plastics on a rapidly increasing scale since the 1950s. For at least half that time, we’ve known that our addiction to convenience has been fouling the ocean. The first study examining the amount of near-surface marine plastic debris was published in 2014. It estimated at least 5.25 trillion individual plastic particles weighing roughly 244,000 metric tons were floating in the world’s oceans. By 2018, microplastics had been found in more than 114 aquatic species, and in 2020, scientists estimated at least 14 million metric tons were resting on the floor of the ocean.Iain McGregor/StuffThe Sustainable Coastlines Charitable Trust says 75% of what they collect in beach clean-ups is plastic. Sustainable Coastlines is building a national litter database. They calculate that for every 1000m2 (quarter acre) of beach, there are 329 items. Three quarters of what the charity collects is plastic. Most of these products – like food wrappers – are used for just minutes or hours by humans. But they will persist in the environment for hundreds of years. The scale of the problem captured the attention of the media and made their way into popular culture, with horrifying images of wildlife distressed or killed by debris, footage of five immense, floating trash vortexes, and influencers who disavow consumerism for a zero-waste lifestyle.Iain McGregor/StuffFishing rope snagged on the beach. Many items commonly used in commercial fishing contain plastics. These include nylon lines, ropes, nets, traps, floats, tubs and safety and wet weather gear. But remarkably, global production is accelerating. On current trends, plastic use will nearly double from 2019 across G20 countries by 2050, reaching 451m tonnes each year. “As we become more aware, so too do polluting industries – around how to find loopholes. For example, they will say: ‘we’re increasing our recycling rates, we are light-weighting’,” says environmental anthropologist and campaigner Trisia Farrelly, of Massey University. “But all that does is give an excuse to allow for not only continued plastic production, but increased plastic production.”Iain McGregor/StuffA pipit forages among plastic litter. New Zealand is phasing out some single-use plastics from July, including produce bags, most straws, plates, bowls and cutlery. By 2025, this will also include polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene food and drink packaging. Last year, 175 nations agreed to end plastic pollution with a binding UN treaty, which could see a global ban on single-use plastic items, a “polluter pays” scheme, and a tax on new production. Still under negotiation, it could come into being by the end of 2024.Iain McGregor/StuffStrong Pacific and Southern Ocean currents, combined with complex westerly winds drag plastic and other debris up onto the beach. Ellie Hooper, Greenpeace Aotearoa oceans campaigner, says the treaty – and a separate agreement struck last week to protect the high seas – could make a difference. But Farrelly warns that industry influence is still at play in the negotiations. “Countries recently submitted ideas about core elements that could be in the text of the treaty. Some commitments are still too low, and some countries are not particularly interested in ambitious policy like caps on plastic production or removing petro-chem subsidies, or for fossil fuel extraction.”Iain McGregor/StuffHarry Pearson abandoned his search for kiwi to pick up litter from the beach and dunes. There is also a growing awareness that plastic pollutes without being littered, through the release of contaminants used in manufacture. These chemicals leach into the environment, air and water, and possibly the food chain. Gaw points to phthalates, additives that make plastics more flexible and so commonplace in household cleaners, food packaging and cosmetics that they are known as ‘the everywhere chemical’. Researchers have linked them to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioural issues, autism spectrum disorders, and fertility and reproductive issues. The European Union and the United States are beginning to restrict and regulate chemicals in this class –and the EU is under particular pressure to phase out PVC and PVC additives.Iain McGregor/StuffHarry Pearson and Jan Jordan collect armfuls of plastic rubbish. Now what for the bay? For close to thirty years, Mike Hilton has nursed the sand dunes of Mason Bay back to health. The screaming, complex westerly winds that bring plastic on the ocean currents too carry an invasive pest. Marram grass – also planted on the island by farmers to tame the dunes – was smothering native vegetation, like the fiery orange pīngao, until Hilton pioneered a multimillion-dollar eradication programme for the University of Otago and DOC. He’s also gathered a “rich collection” of glass bottles from the beach. As the ancient ecology – it is the largest dune system in the Southern Hemisphere – restores, the fore dunes will break down and blow away.Iain McGregor/StuffDune systems are one of New Zealand’s most damaged and endangered ecosystems. The Rakiura Dune Restoration Programme began in 1999, and is the world’s largest and longest-running. But the retreating sand will uncover a fresh environmental problem. For years, regular beach clean-ups were happening on Mason Bay. But sources have told Stuff that up until about 2000 some of the collected trash was buried in the fingers of sand that stretch deep into the mānuka forest. Although it is aesthetically troubling, Hilton says the debris won’t have an impact on the restoration work. However, it leaves a headache for DOC – already stretched thin by competing tourism and biodiversity needs on the end-of-the-earth island.Iain McGregor/StuffPlastic pollution on the beach at Mason Bay. Hikers gather larger pieces of rubbish and leave them at the start of tracks in the hope they’ll be collected. Rakiura operations manager Jennifer Ross says it’s a longstanding issue. “The way the oceanic currents work in the area means it’s constantly in line for all sorts of debris from the Tasman Sea. “In recent years we’re seeing more smaller pieces of plastic too – the kind that mixes in with the sand is very difficult to collect. “No-one likes seeing rubbish in our wild places and unfortunately there’s no one simple solution – it’s a global problem.”Iain McGregor/StuffTalley’s Group has funded clean-ups in the Southland region since 2011, and for more than a decade staff have helped shift the rubbish. DOC also supports clean-ups by the Southern Coastal Charitable Trust, which involve boats and a helicopter to uplift the trash. For more than a decade these have been funded by Talley’s. They’ll contribute $10,000 to the next collection in July, and staff from the Bluff plant will take part. Mike Black, Talley’s depot supervisor, says rubbish on Southern beaches comes from as far afield as the Netherlands and even fish cases from South America. Iain McGregor/StuffTalley’s Group says fish bins that are returned are repaired, recycled and reused by the fishing community. It also funds clean-ups on southern beaches. In recent years crews have found “a huge amount” of domestic rubbish, and believe some may have come from an old landfill, exposed at Fox River in 2019 floods. Fishers don’t discard waste on purpose and bins are tied or securely stored, he said. “But occasionally while on deck, an empty case about to be used might be washed off by a rogue wave. It is not what anyone wants, but it can happen while out in rough sea.” Around 70% are returned to the companies who own them, and Talley’s repairs or recycles them.

Ocean plastic pollution reaches 'unprecedented' levels


The world’s oceans are polluted by a “plastic smog” made up of an estimated 171 trillion plastic particles that if gathered would weigh around 2.3 million tons, according to a new study.

A team of international scientists analyzed global data collected between 1979 and 2019 from nearly 12,000 sampling points in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.

They found a “rapid and unprecedented” increase in ocean plastic pollution since 2005, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

“It is much higher than previous estimates,” Lisa Erdle, director of research and innovation at the 5 Gyres Institute and an author on the report, told CNN.

Without urgent policy action, the rate at which plastics enter the oceans could increase by around 2.6 times between now and 2040, the study found.

Plastic production has soared in the last few decades, especially single-use plastics, and waste management systems have not kept pace. Only around 9% of global plastics are recycled each year.

Huge amounts of that plastic waste end up in the oceans. The majority comes from land, swept into rivers – by rain, wind, overflowing storm drains and littering – and transported out to sea. A smaller but still significant amount, such as fishing gear, is lost or simply dumped into the ocean.

Once plastic gets into the ocean, it doesn’t decompose but instead tends to break down into tiny pieces. These particles “are really not easily cleaned up, we’re stuck with them,” Erdle said.

Marine life can get entangled in plastic or mistake it for food. Plastic can also leach toxic chemicals into the water.

And it isn’t just an environmental disaster; plastic is also a huge climate problem. Fossil fuels are the raw ingredient for most plastics, and they produce planet-heating pollution throughout their lifecycle – from production to disposal.

Figuring out exactly how much plastic is in the ocean is a hard exercise. “The ocean is a complex place. There are lots of ocean currents, there are changes over time due to weather and due to conditions on the ground,” Erdle said.

The researchers spent years poring over peer-reviewed papers as well as unpublished findings from other scientists to try to collate the most extensive record they could – both in terms of timeframe and geography.

Most of the study’s samples were collected in the North Pacific and North Atlantic, where the majority of data exists. The study authors say more data is still needed for areas including the Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic and South Pacific.

“This research opened my eyes to how challenging plastic in the ocean is to measure and characterize and underscores the need for real solutions to the problem,” Win Cowger, a research scientist at Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research in California and a study author, said in a statement.

Since the 1970s, there has been a slew of agreements aimed at stemming the tide of plastic pollution reaching the ocean, yet they are mostly voluntary, fragmented and rarely include measurable targets, the study noted.

The study authors call for urgent international policy intervention. “We clearly need some solutions that have teeth,” Erdle said.

The United Nations has agreed to create a legally binding global plastics treaty by 2024, which would address the whole life of plastics from production to disposal. But big divisions remain over whether this should include cuts in plastic manufacturing, which is predicted to quadruple by 2050.

Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and now-president of Beyond Plastics, a non-profit focused on research and consumer education, said that policies to reduce the amount of plastic produced in the first place are the only real solution, especially as companies are continuing to find new ways to pump more plastics into the market.

“The plastics and petrochemical industries are making it impossible to curb the amount of plastic contaminating our oceans,” Enck told CNN by email.

“New research is always helpful, but we don’t need to wait for new research to take action — the problem is already painfully clear, in the plastic accumulating in our oceans, air, soil, food, and bodies.” Enck said.

There are 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean for each person on Earth

Humans have filled the world’s oceans with more than 170 trillion pieces of plastic, dramatically more than previously estimated, according to a major study released Wednesday.The trillions of plastic particles — a “plastic smog,” in the words of the researchers — weigh roughly 2.4 million metric tons and are doubling about every six years, according to the study conducted by a team of international researchers led by Marcus Eriksen of the 5 Gyres Institute, based in Santa Monica, Calif. That is more than 21,000 pieces of plastic for each of the Earth’s 8 billion residents. Most pieces are very small.The study, which was published in the PLOS One journal, draws on nearly 12,000 samples collected across 40 years of research in all the world’s major ocean basins. Starting in 2004, researchers observed a major rise in the material, which they say coincided with an explosion in plastics production.The findings pointed toward both the vast amount of plastic that is flowing into the world’s oceans and the degree to which it is journeying long distances once in the water. The study may deliver a jolt of energy to U.N. talks to reduce global plastics pollution that started last year.“This exponential rise in ocean surface plastic pollution might make you feel fatalistic. How can you fix this?” said Eriksen, a founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit group that works to study and fight ocean plastics pollution.“But at the same time, the world is negotiating a U.N. treaty on plastic pollution,” Eriksen said.Measuring plastic in the oceanThe weight of all that plastic is equivalent to about 28 Washington Monuments. The samples that were studied end in 2019, so several more Washington Monuments of plastic are likely to have dropped into the sea since then.Eriksen and the other researchers traveled the world’s oceans to collect samples, combed the archives of previous researchers for unpublished data and incorporated other peer-reviewed studies into their analysis. They used new models to estimate the quantity of plastic, leading to sharply revised, higher numbers compared with a 2014 study by Eriksen and some of the same researchers that used a much smaller set of data.Only 10 percent of the plastic ever made has been recycled. The material that doesn’t make it into landfills can get swept into rivers or directly into oceans. It slowly breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics, which are less than 5 millimeters in length and can be eaten by marine life. Plastic has been found near the summit of Mount Everest and inside the deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench — as well as in the human bloodstream.The study examined plastic samples over 40 years starting in 1979. The researchers found a fluctuating amount of plastic in the samples until 2004, when the numbers started to skyrocket. The increase in plastic particles in the oceans corresponds to a previously observed increase of plastic on global beaches over the same time period, they noted.“These parallel trends strongly suggest that plastic pollution in the world’s oceans during the past 15 years has reached unprecedented levels,” the study said.Preventing plastic pollution in the oceanThe data includes samples from the world’s five major gyres, or current systems, which sweep particles from inhabited areas to create large collections of refuse. The best known of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where plastics float slightly below the surface.In looking at samples, the researchers concentrated on the North Atlantic and North Pacific ocean basins, partly because they have been studied more frequently over the decades and are where greater concentrations of the world’s population lives. But high concentrations of plastics were found everywhere.Global negotiators hope to complete the plastics treaty by 2024. It would regulate all aspects of the life cycle of plastic, including the kinds of chemicals that go into it and whether it’s easily recyclable. Anti-pollution campaigners say it is far easier to deal with plastic before it enters waterways than it is to clean it up afterward.Eriksen, the study’s lead author, said research into plastics pollution had in recent years started to shift away from oceans and move farther upstream, to rivers and other waterways, as advocates struggled to understand the issue at its origin.“The plastic pollution, it’s in every biome,” he said. “It’s not just in oceans anymore.”

Once hailed as a solution to the global plastics scourge, PureCycle may be teetering

One of the most heralded advanced plastic recycling companies in the United States, PureCycle Technologies, has signaled that it could be in some serious financial trouble.

Late last week, PureCycle told regulators at the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission that it would miss its deadline for filing a 2022 annual report. In two SEC filings, the eight-year-old company revealed a potential default on $250 million in revenue bonds issued by a local development agency to finance construction of the company’s first flagship recycling plant, in Ohio.

PureCycle’s loan agreement with investors promised a Dec. 1 completion date for the plant, which the company says is almost finished, along the Ohio River in Ironton, 130 miles southeast of Cincinnati. The company reported that it was negotiating with bondholders on whether the delay means that a default will be declared on the bonds, and if so, whether the parties can reach an agreement on a revised timetable and other matters.

Since it rolled out its technology, developed by the Cincinnati-based consumer goods company Procter & Gamble, in 2017, PureCycle has cast itself as a pathbreaker in recycling polypropylene, a highly versatile and durable plastic found in everything from drink cups and yogurt tubs to car dashboards, coffee pods and clothing fibers. In addition to the Ironton plant, the company is constructing another recycling facility in Georgia and has announced one for South Korea. 

PureCycle’s efforts are part of a push by industries that make and use plastics to develop new ways to address a global scourge of plastic waste that threatens public health and the environment, especially the world’s oceans. 

But like other kinds of advanced recycling efforts that have struggled to get out of the gate, like the Brightmark plant in Indiana, or faced serious questions about their commercial viability, like the Encina plant planned for Pennsylvania, PureCycle has its own set of problems. 

It fought allegations of fraudulent financial claims until it was cleared by an SEC investigation; encountered serious opposition to a feedstock preparation plant in Florida; lost a key source of feedstock and customers for its basic end product, worrying investors; and has been limited by the Food and Drug Administration in what kinds of plastic waste it can recycle into products that meet food safety standards. Then there are the construction delays at the Ohio plant, which PureCycle has blamed in part on the global coronavirus pandemic.

As of Monday, the Orlando, Florida-based company’s stock had fallen 40 percent since Jan. 23, from $9.36 per share to $5.56.

“They have a serious whack-a-mole problem here,” said Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, and a former New York state deputy comptroller. “Every time they fix something, something else goes wrong.” 

“They are up to their neck in debt,” which is common for companies that are trying to expand, he said. “They are juggling a lot of balls and you don’t know how it’s going to land, but you see all these dynamics. They have a cumulative set of risks that are threatening the viability of the company.”

Christian Bruey, a spokesman for PureCycle, said the company would not comment.

A Triple Threat to the Planet 

The world is making twice as much plastic waste as it did two decades ago, with most of the discarded materials buried in landfills, burned by incinerators or dumped into the environment, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Production is expected to triple by 2060. 

Globally, only 9 percent of plastic waste is successfully recycled, according to the OECD. The United Nations describes plastic as posing a triple planetary threat of climate change, nature loss and pollution, with the emissions associated with its production and disposal warming the atmosphere and trillions of plastic fragments polluting the air, rivers and oceans and harming species. Microscopic plastic also poses multiple human health risks, entering the body as people consume food, drink water and inhale tiny particles.

The PureCycle technology relies on using chemical solvents to strip away the coloring and chemical additives or plasticizers that give polypropylene special characteristics such as rigidity or pliability. The company says that the end product, polypropylene resin pellets, can then be used to manufacture new polypropylene products.

When the company first announced its technology in 2017, news accounts described the company and its plans as groundbreaking. And in calls with Wall Street analysts as recently as last year, company executives expressed optimism about PureCycle’s future.

The company routinely invokes the global abundance of polypropylene, labeled as a No. 5 plastic, and the threat that the plastic poses to the environment. 

“We have to remember, every year approximately 850 billion pounds of plastic and 170 billion pounds of polypropylene are globally produced from fossil fuels,’’ CEO Dustin Olson said in November. “Every year approximately 16 billion pounds of polypropylene is produced in the U.S., and every year less than 5 percent of polypropylene is recycled.”

“The world wants circularity,” Olson added then, using a term for products based on reuse rather than the extraction of natural resources like fossil fuels. “The world wants a new and real plastic solution, and PureCycle is positioned to change the paradigm, and deliver a technical solution that the world so desperately needs.”

However, the company does not lack for critics, among them Jan Dell, a chemical engineer who has worked as a consultant to the oil and gas industry and now runs The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit that fights plastic pollution and waste.

Dell, who has been following PureCycle since it was founded in 2015, said she believes the recent SEC filings may signal the beginning of the end for the company. While there is no shortage of polypropylene waste for potential recycling, she said, this type of plastic is too difficult to recycle into what the Food and Drug Administration would consider safe for use with food products. 

“The feedstock is the problem,” she said this week. “The company cannot predict what feedstock they will get” from household recycling bins, where people pitch all sorts of plastics with different chemical makeups. Some discarded plastic bottles may be contaminated by the residue from household hazardous wastes like oil or pesticides.

“It’s like baking a cake,” Dell said. “You don’t come into a bakery with different ingredients every day.”

The variable feedstock complicates a process that relies on toxic solvents to strip away plastic additives in the polypropylene, she said. While the company describes the output as “like-virgin” polypropylene, the FDA has not entirely agreed.

So far, the only post-consumer plastic waste that the FDA will allow the company to recycle into food-grade plastics is drink cups from sports stadiums, a category that Dell describes as a trivial sliver of the polypropylene waste stream. With consumer product companies making promises to use recycled content in much of their packaging materials, focusing on drink cups from stadiums won’t get them very far, she said.

Dell said the actual recycling rate for polypropylene is less than 1 percent, and that the byproduct is typically used to make things like orange plastic traffic cones, though not by PureCycle.

The company announced in 2021 that it had become the official plastics recycling partner of the Cleveland Browns football team, and last year it added the Cincinnati Bengals as a partner. PureCycle has also teamed with the Orlando Magic basketball team to recycle cups.

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Canada's single-use plastic ban faces its first legal test

Canada’s single-use plastic regulations face their first legal test today as the plastics lobby and the federal government head to court.A federal court judge will hear arguments from lawyers on all sides from Tuesday to Thursday in Toronto.The federal judge, who is not expected to deliver a ruling for months, must consider whether Ottawa was justified when it listed plastic products as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.”This is one of the largest environmental court cases that we have seen in Canada,” said Anthony Merante, plastics campaigner at Oceana Canada, an intervener in the case.”This is about tackling Canada’s second most pertinent environmental crisis, which is the global plastics pollution crisis.”The Liberal government relied on a scientific assessment of plastic pollution published in 2020. It found that plastic pollutes rivers, lakes and other water bodies, harming wildlife and leaving microplastic fragments in the water we drink. That report was soon followed by several federal policy and regulatory moves, culminating most recently in the federal government officially announcing dates for a ban on the manufacture, sale and import of certain plastic products.The ban affects checkout bags, straws, stir sticks and cutlery. Some of these prohibitions have already taken effect and some won’t happen until 2025.The federal government announced which single-use plastics will be covered by a national ban in 2022.

Colorado’s lead composter imposes stricter accepted materials rules to curb contamination

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Dive Brief:

A1 Organics, Colorado’s largest composter, is changing its accepted materials list to be more restrictive. The goal is to reduce the growing amount — currently 10% — of material it receives that is too contaminated to effectively process while maintaining final compost product quality standards. 
Only food scraps and yard and plant trimmings will be accepted starting April 1. Traditionally accepted fiber materials like paper towels and coffee filters no longer will be accepted, and neither will packaging or service ware — even if it is labeled “compostable.” The only food and yard scrap collection bags that will be allowed are three gallon versions certified by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance.
Nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle is among the organics haulers and municipalities that are working with A1 Organics to educate customers about which items to put in curbside compost bins to prevent contaminated loads from being sent to landfill.

Dive Insight:
As curbside organics programs have expanded across the U.S., so too has contamination. Bits of glass, plastic and metal are commonly cited contaminants. A1 Organics says that these fragments in the final compost product affect resale quality, and contaminated compost can’t be sold to certified organic farmers. And debate grows over whether or not compostable packaging does, in fact, break down or if it is a contaminant.
“Contamination is a serious problem,” said Rhodes Yepsen, executive director at the Biodegradable Products Institute, via email. “It’s about keeping the wrong items out of compost bins like glass and conventional plastics, all of which BPI supports through its labeling requirements, consumer testing, and a national public policy program.”
Last summer, A1 Organics began inspecting all incoming truckloads and rejecting those with unacceptable levels of contamination. It said in last week’s material change announcement that contaminants can’t effectively be removed from a mixed load, so the presence of contamination requires the entire load to be rejected.
Colorado nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle cautioned in a newsletter last week that haulers who see unacceptable items in customers’ curbside carts may choose to not collect them. “We share your concern with this strict new standard. We also fully support it as a means for A1 Organics to create a high-quality compost product made from clean compost materials,” it stated.
More organics program operators are questioning the viability of continuing to collect commonly accepted fiber and “compostable” products. The University of Wisconsin-Madison had a composting program since 2009 that was canceled in 2021. The organics processing equipment for years struggled with non-organic items, as well as paper items that slowed down the system. And in 2019, Oregon composter Rexius stopped accepting compostable packaging due to its inability to effectively handle the resulting contamination.
Although one objective of compostable packaging is to reduce contamination from other types of packaging in compost, A1 Organics says not all of these items break down fully or as quickly as needed — even those labeled as “certified” compostable. The company’s material change announcement states that traditional certification standards “measure compostability based on laboratory conditions, not actual field conditions. Meaning some ‘compostable’ items don’t fully compost with our technology.”
BPI provides third-party certification for compostable products, and Yepsen says the product certification is sound. 
“BPI certified products have been used successfully in composting programs across North America for decades, breaking down completely, boosting food scrap diversion rates, and even reducing contamination,” he said. “The US Composting Council has resources for composters to navigate the decision to accept compostable products, looking at operating conditions, equipment, market needs, economics, etc., but the science of compostability and validity of BPI’s certification are not in question.”
Organics companies and municipalities are investing in new processing equipment to produce a cleaner compost product. Phoenix Public Works installed a “depackager” at its composting facility last fall to separate food and beverages from their packaging, which eliminates manual sorting. And Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling in Wyoming recently received $300,000 in grants to pilot an air knife density separator, which separates small, light, unpickable items like stickers.
The cities of Boulder and Denver are helping to spread the word to residents about the changes to the region’s composting programs. Last fall, Denver voters approved an ordinance that expands the city’s composting program and requires that apartment complexes and a variety of food waste-producing businesses begin offering composting options. Last year, an extended producer responsibility law for packaging passed in Colorado; it included clauses related to composting, including clarifying funding to support contamination reduction in composting and to support the processing of compostable packaging.
Interested in more packaging news? Packaging Dive is launching March 27. Sign up today.

Whole Foods lags in reducing plastic pollution, report says

Whole Foods lags in reducing plastic pollution, report says | The Hill Skip to content SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images Customers who shop at Whole Foods are getting their groceries with a side order of plastic, a new report has found. After early progress in removing single-use plastic from its stores, Whole Foods’ efforts to …

Adrift Lab classifies new disease caused by plastic ingestion by Lord Howe Island seabirds

A previously unknown disease in seabirds caused by the ingestion of plastic has been found on Lord Howe Island by scientists from the United Kingdom and Australia.Named plasticosis, the newly classified disease is caused by plastic that repeatedly injures soft tissue and leads to the formation of extensive scar tissue in a bird’s stomach.Impacted scar tissue does not operate like healthy tissue and can impact organ structure and function.The discovery was made by a cross-disciplinary team that included scientists from the UK’s Natural History Museum and Australian institutions, which collaborated as part of a global team under the banner of Adrift Lab and classified the disease.Adrift Lab researcher Hayley Charlton-Howard said it raised concern about plastic ingestion in other species, including humans.Plastic ingested in oceanic foodFlesh-footed shearwater birds on Lord Howe Island off New South Wales regularly consume plastics, with scientists surmising plastic ingestion starts at hatching.