Advanced recycling of plastics opined on in Syracuse newspaper

A recent guest opinion piece in The Post-Standard newspaper (web address discussed advanced recycling of plastics. That article can be found here. In an effort to disseminate accurate scientific and engineering information, Professor Marco J. Castaldi has written a letter to the editor in response to the original opinion, specifically drawing distinction between various technologies which are sometimes conflated, misunderstood, and/or mischaracterized. The full text of this letter is reprinted immediately below.

To the Editor:

Recent op-ed writers went to great lengths to mischaracterize emergent technologies that are developing to manage nearly 90% of plastics that do not get recycled today (”Plastic burning ‘has no place in climate-forward NY’ (Guest Opinion by Judith Enck and Tok M. Oyewole),” March 14, 2022).

Advanced recycling technologies focus on hard-to-recycle plastics such as flexible pouches, films and tubes, converting them back into their raw materials to be used to make new plastics. This process allows plastics to be recycled each time a product is disposed by the consumer.

The writers call this “burning,” which is completely incorrect. Their characterization represents a clear misunderstanding of technologies and thermodynamic principles. Typical advanced recycling technologies operate with no oxygen or air to convert post-use plastics to a liquid or gaseous state. Incineration destroys waste materials by burning, without recovering energy or materials. This is entirely different from advanced recycling.

Advanced recycling technologies today are being deployed by both large plastics companies and multiple entrepreneurial enterprises to “remake” once non-recyclable plastics. These technologies will divert non-recycled plastics from landfills and the environment.

Advanced recycling enables the creation of new plastics from used plastics, displacing the need to extract fossil feedstock. Importantly, they operate like other manufacturing facilities, subject to federal, state and local regulations. A recent study found air emissions from a typical advanced recycling facility to be roughly the same as familiar facilities such as hospitals, universities and food manufacturers.

Innovative technologies need time to mature and often are confused with existing ones, and the op-ed authors have added to that confusion. It is not helpful when mischaracterizations and poor understanding are disseminated. As New York state considers how to recover its non-recycled plastics, it would be sensible to listen to scientists and engineers who understand advanced plastics recycling technologies.

Marco J. Castaldi, Ph.D.

Professor, Chemical Engineering Department

Director, Earth System Science and Environmental Engineering Program

The City College of New York

New York City