Newfangled Form of Plastic Recycling Called a 'Delusion'

A ProPublica investigation calls process of pyrolysis an industry-hyped bust
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 23, 2024 6:00 AM CDT
Newfangled Form of Plastic Recycling Is a 'Delusion'
   (Getty / Elvis901)

If the plastics industry is to be believed, a new type of chemical recycling called pyrolysis is poised to solve many of the well-documented—and alarming—problems with plastic. The only hitch? Pyrolysis is a "delusion," declares a ProPublica investigation. As journalist Lisa Song explains, pyrolysis "uses heat to break plastic all the way down to its molecular building blocks," and companies that rely on plastic (think chemical and fossil fuel companies) tout it as a massive improvement over traditional recycling. Song spent months researching the issue, talking to scientists and parsing industry press releases such as this one. "Under all the math and engineering, I found an inconvenient truth: Not much is being recycled at all, nor is pyrolysis capable of curbing the plastic crisis," she writes. "Not now. Maybe not ever."

The story walks through the steps of pyrolysis and reveals "the quiet—and convenient—part of the industry's revolutionary pyrolysis method: It relies heavily on extracting fossil fuels." (The culprit here is a liquid called naphtha, the nonrecycled form of which is made from ordinary crude oil and is used heavily in process; the story explains the particulars.) The bottom line of all this is displayed in a hypothetical: If a pyrolysis operator began with 100 pounds of plastic waste, it would wind up with 15 to 20 pounds of reusable plastic, according to the story. As Neil Tangri of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives puts it, pyrolysis is a "fairy tale." Read the full story. (Or check out other longform recaps.)

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