ExxonMobil just launched one of the largest chemical recycling plants in North America – but environmental advocates say the technology is a dangerous distraction from the need to reduce plastic production.

On the surface, the latest addition to ExxonMobil’s giant petrochemical refinery complex in Baytown, Texas, sounds like it could be a good thing: An “advanced recycling” facility capable of breaking down 36,000 metric tons of hard-to-recycle plastic each year. But plastic waste advocates warn that plants like it do little actual recycling, and instead generate hazardous pollutants while providing cover for oil giants to keep producing millions of tons of new plastic products each year.

The facility, which began large-scale operations in December of last year, is one of the largest chemical recycling plants in North America. Chemical recycling works by breaking down plastic polymers into small molecules in order to make new plastics, synthetic fuels and other products. Companies like ExxonMobil have rebranded the technology as “advanced recycling” and are now touting it as the latest hi-tech fix to address the plastic crisis, as traditional, mechanical recycling has failed to slow the tide of plastic piling up in landfills and the ocean.

ExxonMobil also says it’s planning to build chemical recycling plants at “many of its other manufacturing sites around the world”. Though it hasn’t committed specific dollar amounts to building new plants, the company is currently assessing locations in Louisiana, Illinois, Belgium, Singapore and elsewhere.

By the end of 2026, the oil giant hopes to have enough chemical recycling capacity to process roughly 450,000 metric tons of plastic each year.

But that’s a drop in the bucket compared with how much plastic ExxonMobil creates.

In 2021 alone, ExxonMobil churned out 6m tons of new single-use plastic, more than any other petrochemical company, according to a recent report by the philanthropic Minderoo Foundation. What’s more, recent research has shown that chemical recycling is worse for the environment than mechanical recycling in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and water use, and in some cases, worse than virgin plastic production. The process ExxonMobil’s Baytown plant uses, called pyrolysis, is often so inefficient that many environmental advocates say it should not be called recycling at all.

Smoke fills the air at the refinery in Baytown, Texas, in 2021. In that year alone, ExxonMobil churned out 6m tons of new single-use plastic

Conventional mechanical recycling involves sorting different types of plastic into individual streams that are washed, shredded and melted down to make new products. During this process, the chemical makeup of the plastic remains unchanged, although contaminants can find their way in during the melting and cutting process and the end products have a weaker physical structure.

Chemical recycling relies on high heat, pressure or chemical catalysts like enzymes to break down plastic into its molecular building blocks. Those building blocks can then be used to make new products – including new plastics with the same physical structure as the original material.

The most commercially widespread chemical recycling technology today is pyrolysis, according to Taylor Uekert, a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory who studies plastic recycling.

Pyrolysis has significant environmental impacts. Plants that use it require large amounts of energy to operate: Uekert found that recycling a kilogram of high-density polyethylene plastic using pyrolysis requires nearly seven times the amount of energy needed to make a kilogram of virgin plastic. Typically, that energy comes from burning fossil fuels, which creates air pollution and planet-heating carbon emissions.

Pyrolysis operations can also consume large volumes of water, and they often generate hazardous waste. Overall, Uekert’s research found that the environmental impact of making recycled plastics with pyrolysis is 10 to 100 times greater than virgin plastic production.

In a pyrolysis plant, plastic is put in a reactor and subjected to high temperatures (ranging from 300 to 900C) and pressures in the absence of oxygen. This treatment transforms plastic into a synthetic form of crude oil which can be used as a replacement for fossil fuels or to create new plastics.

While pyrolysis is able to handle more types of plastic waste than some other chemical recycling technologies, Uekert said it is not typically considered “closed loop” recycling because the fuel it generates is often burned for energy – meaning it can’t be recycled again and again. Although pyrolysis is not the same as incineration, in which waste is burned in the presence of oxygen, environmental advocates often liken pyrolysis to incineration since the end products tend to go up in smoke one way or the other.

Chemical recycling “is a way for the industry to continue to expand its plastic production and assuage people’s concerns about plastic waste”, said Veena Singla, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council who has analyzed chemical recycling facilities around the US. “They’re trying to put a pretty bow on it.”

ExxonMobil’s Baytown recycling plant uses the firm’s proprietary “Exxtend” technology, a pyrolysis-based approach, according to company statements. Reached for comment, an ExxonMobil spokesperson, Julie King, told the Guardian that this process “complements traditional mechanical recycling” by turning hard-to-recycle plastics into raw materials which can be used to make new plastics for food packaging, medical equipment and personal hygiene products.

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King declined to respond to criticisms about the negative environmental impacts of pyrolysis or answer questions about how much pollution the Baytown recycling plant generates. She also did not confirm the exact name or location of the plant: when asked for any identifying information that could be used to look up its state and federal permits, King simply said that ExxonMobil reports emissions to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of Texas in a “consistent and timely manner in accordance with all laws, regulations and permits”. King also offered that a third-party analysis by the environmental consulting firm Sphera found that every ton of plastic waste fed through ExxonMobil’s chemical recycling process generates 19 to 49% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than processing the same amount of crude-based feedstocks. (ExxonMobil did not share a copy of a report, and Sphera didn’t answer emails.)

She also declined to say how much of the plastic waste fed into the plant would be used to make recycled plastic versus synthetic fuel. An internal analysis shared with the Guardian by the Minderoo Foundation found that if ExxonMobil’s Baytown plant had yields typical of pyrolysis plants, only 23% of the fuel it generates would be used to produce new plastics. The rest would go to other non-plastic applications, like fuel for transportation.

Chemical recycling is “deflecting attention away from what we need, which is reducing single-use plastics and a global treaty on plastic waste”, said Phaedra Pezzullo, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder who has a book forthcoming on plastics and environmental justice.

In an undercover investigation in 2021, Unearthed caught the ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy on video explaining how the firm uses recycling – including the Baytown plant – to shift the conversation around how to deal with plastic away from reducing consumption. (ExxonMobil’s CEO, Darren Woods, later said that McCoy’s comments “in no way represent the company’s position on a variety of issues”, and the oil company has since parted ways with McCoy.)

As the petrochemical industry forges ahead with chemical recycling, the same low-income communities and communities of color that bear the burden of plastic manufacturing are seeing these plants pop up in their backyards.

Of the eight chemical recycling facilities operating in the US in 2021, six are located in disproportionately Black and brown communities, according to a report by Singla. Five are in areas with a large number of households living on less than $25,000 a year.

Exxon’s refinery in Baytown, Texas. Nearly 20% of the city’s predominately white, working-class residents live in poverty, with a per capita income of just $25,000.

The Baytown plant wasn’t included in Singla’s analysis, which only included facilities for which data had been reported to the EPA or state permits were available as of August 2021. But the city, already a hub of petrochemical production, fits the pattern she identified: nearly 20% of its predominantly white, working-class residents live in poverty, with a per-capita income of just $25,000.

ExxonMobil’s Baytown complex – which includes the third largest oil refinery in the US and a plant that manufactures 2.3m metric tons of plastic a year – is a major contributor to regional air and water pollution. It also has a long history of emitting chemicals above its permit limits, including the carcinogenic compound benzene. In recent years, ExxonMobil’s Baytown complex has been the site of fires and explosions that have injured workers and triggered shelter-in-place orders for nearby residents.

“Exxon has a terrible track record of polluting the Baytown community,” Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas, told the Guardian. “This false ‘chemical recycling’ will only produce more toxic misery for Baytown.”

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