As recycling rate drops, California should embrace innovative recycling technologies

By Tim Shestek, Special to CalMatters

California’s recycling rate has fallen from a peak of 50% to 40%, well short of the 75%-by-2020 goal established by the Legislature, according to a recent report by CalRecycle, the state agency that manages recycling programs.

Several factors have contributed to the decline: material generation is outpacing recycling, debris from several major wildfires generated additional waste and new import restrictions imposed by China shut off markets for many materials, particularly paper and plastics. 

Several suggestions on how best to respond to this situation have been discussed, including Senate Bill 54 that would set new requirements on manufacturers to recycle or compost 75 percent of their packaging material by 2030. Industry initiatives by organizations such as the Recycling Partnership are examining ways to improve our existing recycling systems, including industry-paid financing arrangements to improve the recycling infrastructure for a variety of materials. 

Our traditional recycling systems can and must be improved. 

But reaching ambitious 75% recycling targets requires embracing new thinking, new tools and new technologies to complement our existing systems.  Now is the time for California to harness the power of innovative, advanced recycling technologies to further enhance our ability to recover and repurpose waste materials, especially plastics.

Advanced recycling technologies complement mechanical recycling by converting plastics with less market value back into feedstocks to manufacture new products. Companies like Oregon-based Agilyx are turning polystyrene – both rigid and foam packaging – back into their original styrene molecules that can then be used to make new packaging.  Utah-based Renewlogy was recently awarded a new contract with the City of Phoenix to divert #3-#7 plastics that previously would be exported to China.  Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said, “During a time when cities are giving up on recycling, Phoenix is again leading the way in setting the gold standard for innovation and creativity.”

Additional companies around the country are taking these plastics and creating high-value products for new plastics and chemicals; basic chemicals such as methanol that can be used as cleaning products; waxes for candles and crayons; and other products like synthetic crude oil.  Plastics once destined for the landfill now have a new purpose.  

Yet, while other states have embraced these innovative technologies, California lags behind. 

Outdated solid waste management laws narrowly define what constitutes acceptable recycling processes. Proposed regulations by CalRecycle would actually limit the use of advanced technologies in managing food service packaging used at state facilities. 

Making the situation worse are critics who wrongly argue these technologies are akin to incineration. While these claims may make for good political rhetoric, scientific data reveals a different story. A chemical engineering professor at the City College of New York stated “emissions from facilities that use a common advanced recycling technology (pyrolysis) were typically found to be lower compared to many industrial and commercial facilities, such as food manufacturing, hospitals, and universities.”  Plus, any facility operated in California would be subject to strict environmental federal, state and local permitting requirements for air, water, land and waste. 

Finally, California could miss out on the huge economic benefits of these recycling innovations. Closed Loop Partners found there is a potential addressable market of $120 billion in economic opportunity via advanced technologies for plastics and petrochemicals. 

If California was recovering just 25 percent of the plastics sent to landfills annually in the state, advanced recycling facilities would generate $1.3 billion in economic impact and create 5,000 jobs.  

California’s declining recycling rate should concern everyone. That’s why now is the time to invest in new technologies and explore new ideas to help manage these challenges. Innovation will help bolster our ability to repurpose waste materials, increase our overall recovery rates, and simultaneously create new economic opportunities.  What is California waiting for?

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Tim Shestek, based in Sacramento, is senior director for state affairs with the American Chemistry Council, [email protected].  He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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