Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Youngkin calls for new recycling technology, environmentalists hesitant

People work with heavy machine
Charles Krupa/AP
Workers clean consumer plastic shopping bags from the clogged rollers of a machine which separates paper, plastic and metal recyclable material in Westborough, Mass. (Photo: Charles Krupa/AP)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants Virginia to be a leader in new “advanced” or “chemical” recycling industries.

That was the message from Executive Order 17, titled “Recognizing the Value of Recycling and Waste Reduction.”

The order does a few things - it makes it state policy to encourage recycling and the use of post-consumer recycled products, calls on the Department of Environmental Quality to work with stakeholders on addressing food waste and advocates for bringing advanced recycling facilities to Virginia.

EO 17 also rescinds Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 77, which aimed to wean state agencies off single-use plastic bottles, plastic bags and polystyrene containers by 2025.

The order comes at a time when recycling - especially plastics recycling - is not seen as positively as it once was. Reporting by National Public Radio and Frontline showed that plastics manufacturers have long known recycling is not economically feasible despite selling it to the American public as a long-term solution.

Because recycling facilities can’t always make money on the plastic they receive, much of it is trashed. China stopped importing plastic waste at the end of 2017, greatly reducing demand and therefore value. Facilities have closed in recent years, leading some Virginia localities to suspend recycling programs.

According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States generated 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018. Only 9% of that was recycled - leaving 32.5 million tons to be landfilled, incinerated or littered.

Brett Vassey is CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers’ Association. Plastics manufacturers are one of the many groups he represents. Vassey says that low 9% figure is exactly why Virginia should be bringing more advanced recycling into the state.

“We divert primarily what is not easy to recover in the waste stream,” Vassey said. That includes plastics you typically wouldn’t expect to recycle, like those numbered 5 and up. Advanced recycling is better able to handle those plastics and, Vassey said, the technologies used can also handle contaminated plastics better than traditional methods.

“It breaks [plastic trash] down into its chemical components, its basic polymers and monomers, and that can then be used to remanufacture other products,” Vassey said. “Everything from personal protective equipment to fuel to adhesives. There’s just a huge list of products that can be made.”

But environmentalists say advanced recycling is an unproven technology that’s being used to slow the transition away from single-use plastics.

Tim Cywinski, of the Sierra Club Virginia, says fossil fuel and plastics companies are motivated to back these projects “because they want to once again say, ‘we’re creating this pollution but it’s on the consumer to do something about it’ as opposed to taking a hard look at what is the source that’s generating the pollution in the first place.”

Vassey notes that the vision VMA is pitching would only be able to handle, at most, 65% of the state’s plastic with these technologies. Vassey said there are other technologies that could be used to avoid landfilling, although none that VMA is working on.

One such method of disposal proposed by manufacturers for unrecyclable plastic is to burn it as fuel. This eliminates waste, but also emits CO2 into the air - which scientists say we have to stop doing as soon as possible.

Cywinski was also critical of Youngkin’s move to dissolve the state’s single-use plastic ban.

“For them to turn around and say, ‘we care about recycling, but we’re not gonna phase out single-use products,’ knowing that most single use products cannot be recycled, it’s just an exacerbation of the problem,” Cywinski said.

The parties also disagree on advanced recycling’s ability to scale up. Vassey said, like any industry, it takes time and capital to become as efficient as possible, but he sees Virginia as being a potential trailblazer.

According to the order, DEQ must produce a report with stakeholders on bringing more advanced recycling facilities to Virginia within a year. They’ll consider waste-stream requirements for the facilities, identify possible incentives for companies and evaluate potential locations or regions to build in - with an eye to creating jobs in rural areas.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.