Why Big Oil and the chemical lobby are blasting us with “advanced” recycling ads
The American Chemistry Council is stepping up efforts to greenwash its massive plastic pollution problem.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
The disturbing reports on plastic pollution just keep coming: toxic plastic waste is filling up our oceans, our landfills, and even our bodies. But if you’ve seen a recent surge of ads from the companies that produce this garbage, you might be forgiven for thinking they’re working on solutions to the problem.
“America’s Plastic Makers” is the brand promoting a slew of ads about a new “solution” to plastic pollution that experts and evidence say creates new climate and environmental harms, and doesn’t actually work. It’s called “advanced” or chemical recycling, and refers to various processes for repurposing plastic waste. Some of those would use chemicals to break down used plastic and supposedly turn it into new plastic. But far more frequently, chemical recycling refers to combusting fossil fuels to turn plastics into chemicals or more oil and gas to be burned (also known as pyrolisis or gasification, which isn’t recycling at all).
Big Oil companies are opening new chemical recycling facilities across the country, which they’re selling as the silver bullet to dealing with hard-to-recycle plastic waste. And they’re advertising these facilities with the help of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade association for chemical producers and the main lobbying arm for the plastics industry.
Chemical recycling is one of the fossil fuel industry’s newest strategies to greenwash its harmful products.
As far back as the 1970s, major oil and petrochemical companies like Exxon and Chevron — members of the ACC and some of the world’s largest producers of single-use plastic — knew that the majority of plastic products could never be effectively recycled. But instead of acting on that knowledge, they ran a coordinated campaign to convince consumers of the opposite in order to sell their products. (Sound familiar?)
“Recycling has for 50 years been [the oil and chemical industry’s] pseudo solution to the plastic pollution crisis, and society has started to realize the truth behind this,” said Melissa Valliant, communications director at Beyond Plastics, an organization that works to fight plastic pollution. “They needed a new smokescreen so that consumers could be reassured, falsely, deceptively, that this problem was being curbed.”
Enter chemical recycling.
Here’s the thing: chemical recycling is inefficient and unproven, and it exacerbates climate and environmental injustices, according to a series of nonprofit, journalistic, and government analyses. The process is extremely energy and emissions-intensive because it requires burning more fossil fuels, using and emitting more neurotoxic or carcinogenic chemicals like benzene, or both. Hazardous waste created during chemical recycling is either burned in copious amounts on site or, in many cases, shipped across the country to multiple locations to be burned. And a large majority of these facilities are sited in communities of color and low-income communities.
But that hasn’t stopped the industry from widely marketing the technology as an environmentally sound solution.
The American Chemistry Council is spending more and more on ads that promote the idea that chemical recycling makes plastics a-okay.
Since the beginning of the year, the American Chemistry Council has spent more than $526,000 running Facebook and Instagram ad campaigns about “advanced” or chemical recycling, according to an analysis of Meta data by the Center for Climate Integrity’s digital team.*
In 2022, the group spent more than $265,000 on the ads — more than double the $97,000 it spent on the issue the year prior, and six times its spending the year before that. And ACC’s brand, “America’s Plastic Makers,” has consistently outpaced Facebook and Instagram ad spending by other groups on energy and environment issues in recent months, according to tracking by Climate Monitor.
The ads profess the benefits of chemical recycling and applaud industry’s efforts to recycle plastics. Many of them claim that chemical recycling keeps plastics in the “circular economy,” a term that has been co-opted to convince consumers that plastics are being sent back into the same production cycle. But that’s not the case, according to a newly published paper on the subject from the Center for International Environmental Law.
“The ‘circular’ label is often misapplied to the burning and inadequate recycling of plastic waste, contrary to the principles of circularity,” the brief explains. “Technical processes that require the continuation and expansion of plastics production cannot be labeled circular, and they should thus not be considered solutions to the global plastics crisis.”
Notably, chemical recycling does nothing to phase out the use of plastics or fossil fuels, which create their own environmental hazards at every phase of their life cycles. Valliant said these facilities would require “an endless stream of uncontaminated plastic” — not exactly a solution to the problem at hand.
“It’s really just a distraction while companies exponentially increase the amount of plastic they’re pumping into the world, so they can do so without being thwarted through policy action,” she said.
Analyses by the Natural Resource Defense Council on chemical recycling facilities found that most current and proposed facilities actually turn plastic into fuel, rather than back into plastic. Those findings were bolstered in a government study by the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, published earlier this year. “If you don’t return the plastic into the production cycle, you’re not reducing the demand for fossil fuels to make new plastic,” said Veena Singla, Senior Scientist at the NRDC. “You’re burning plastic that is generated as a fuel, and you have to keep making new plastic to feed into that system. The name is a misnomer — it’s not recycling.”
The industry is also pushing ads that fight regulation of plastic pollution. The ACC has already funded more than $7,300 worth of Meta ad campaigns opposing plastic waste regulations since the beginning of this year, CCI’s analysis found.
Many of the ads attack bills that would force companies to take responsibility for plastic pollution, otherwise known as “extended producer responsibility” bills, for not including chemical recycling as an alternative.
The American Chemistry Council is pushing its own state-level bills that would lessen regulations for chemical recycling facilities or count burning plastic waste at chemical recycling facilities as real recycling, finds a recent report from nonprofit Just Zero.
“The industry is trying to skirt regulations of all of the pollution that these advanced or chemical recycling facilities would emit,” said Valliant. “It’s essentially the same as burning plastic. There’s nothing about this that is actually recycling, and there’s no reason that these facilities should fall under that umbrella under the law.”
Plastic is poisoning communities and the climate — but Big Oil is using chemical recycling as a justification for producing more of it.
A just-published report from the Minderoo-Monoco Commission on Human Health documents the “horrific harm” that plastic manufacturing, use, and disposal are causing to humans and the environment, recommending that the United Nations halt further plastic production, which is expected to triple by 2060.
Those harms are often uniquely present in the same frontline communities where companies are now building facilities for chemical recycling. In Baytown, Texas, where residents are suing Exxon for the chronic and dangerous air pollution at its Baytown petrochemical complex, the company just started up operations at a much-touted chemical recycling facility in December.
While Exxon, Chevron, and other fossil fuel and chemical companies build new “advanced recycling” facilities, they’ve simultaneously invested in a proposed buildout of more than 120 additional petrochemical projects across the country. If those plans move forward, the petrochemical industry will account for nearly half the growth in oil demand by 2050.
“The public knows we have a plastic problem, and is aware that increasing our plastic waste and production is untenable,” Singla said. “Promoting so-called chemical recycling is really key to allowing plastic and petrochemical production to increase, and allowing continued use of fossil fuels.”
*Abbey Dufoe and Tess Abbot, the Center for Climate Integrity’s digital team, contributed research to this story.
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