Today certain types of plastics, including those used in water bottles and milk jugs, are easily recycled. Other ubiquitous plastic items, such as detergent bottles, shopping bags, and egg cartons, pose a bigger sustainability challenge because they cannot be recycled in the same way. To address this problem, Pennsylvania recently enacted legislation to promote advanced recycling of hard-to-recycle plastics. This action, intended to reduce regulatory burdens on advanced plastics recycling facilities, may help divert these plastics from landfills and oceans while creating jobs at new recycling plants in the Commonwealth. Critics in the environmental community, however, question whether the sustainability and economic benefits of increased plastics recycling may be outweighed by environmental harms, chief among them climate change impacts from converting plastics into fossil fuels.

Governor Wolf signed a bill on November 25, 2020, amending the Pennsylvania Solid Waste Management Act (SWMA) to exclude post-use polymers converted using advanced recycling technologies from regulation as solid, municipal, or residual waste. Act 127 further provides that advanced recycling of post-use polymers does not constitute waste processing or treatment. The upshot of these changes is to exempt advanced plastics recycling facilities from the lengthy and expensive process of obtaining SWMA processing or treatment permits.

As always, the devil is in the details. The Act defines “post-use polymers” as post-use plastic from residential, municipal or commercial sources that would not otherwise be recycled, but excludes plastics mixed with other waste except for minor impurities like paper labels or metal rings. To satisfy the exemption, “advanced recycling facilities” are defined as those that separate, store, and convert post-use polymers through pyrolysis, gasification, depolymerization, catalytic cracking, reforming, hydrogenation and similar technologies into basic hydrocarbon raw materials, feedstocks, chemicals, crude oil, liquid fuels, waxes, lubricants, and other products. The Act declares these activities to be manufacturing rather than waste management.

Given these definitions, facilities that receive and sort plastics and other wastes for recycling, but which do not perform an advanced recycling process, will not benefit from this permitting exemption. In addition, the Act requires compliance with all other environmental regulatory requirements (such as permitting of air or wastewater emissions) to be excluded from the obligation to obtain a SWMA processing or treatment permit.

Supporters of the Act say that facilitating local advanced plastics recycling infrastructure will help fill the void created by China’s 2018 ban on U.S. plastic waste imports, close the loop by converting hard-to-recycle plastics into new products, and create hundreds of recycling jobs. Conversely, several environmental groups opposed the bill, arguing that promoting technologies like pyrolysis and gasification will simply encourage burning of plastics and lead to increased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Those on both sides of the debate will watch carefully in 2021 and beyond to see whether the Act leads to proposals for new Pennsylvania advanced plastics recycling facilities, and whether these facilities are challenged by environmentalists and local communities on climate change, environmental justice, and other grounds.