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Energy Department is criticized for funding “false” plastics solutions

The U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, announced this week that it will invest $13.4 million in research funding to address the plastic industry’s contributions to pollution and climate change. But while the agency cast the investment as an opportunity to address urgent environmental problems while creating an “influx of clean manufacturing jobs for American…

The U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, announced this week that it will invest $13.4 million in research funding to address the plastic industry’s contributions to pollution and climate change. The agency presented the investment as a way to address urgent environmental issues while also creating “influx of clean manufacturing jobs” for American workers. However, environmental advocates claimed it was a bad approach.

“It is a waste tax dollars,” stated Judith Enck (an ex-regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, and the founder of Beyond Plastics advocacy group). She criticized the funding’s emphasis on “upcycling”, and biodegradable materials, and said that the grants perpetuated “false solution” that would continue the U.S. dependence on single-use plastics and little to reduce plastic waste entering the oceans every year.

Enck’s approach is quite different from that of the DOE’s press release which stated it would contribute $2.5 million to seven plastic-related research programs led by universities and corporations. It cites the need to “build a clean energy economy and ensure the U.S. reaches net-zero carbon emissions by 2050” and includes laudatory quotes from Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

But, environmental advocates claim that most of the DOE projects — “infinitely recycled single-polymer chemical” and “catalytic destruction of plasma treated single use plastics to value added chemicals” — have been rejected by the industry. Due to technical and economic problems, most chemical recycling plants end up converting used plastic into oil or gas for burning. One 2020 analysis from the nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA, found that of the 37 chemical recycling facilities proposed in the U.S. since 2000, only three are operational, and zero specialize in plastic-to-plastic conversion.

According to GAIA the plastics industry spent decades researching chemical recycling but has not produced much. Tok Oyewole is the U.S. policy and research coordinator for GAIA. She doesn’t believe that additional research funding will ever be enough to fulfill the industry’s promise of closed-loop chemical recycling systems. This is despite the fact that it takes a lot of time and money. She said that it was disingenuous to claim that these technologies are a solution.

Other projects that sound good, such as the development of biodegradable film for food packaging, have a similar track record to DOE funding. Oyewole argued that taxpayer money could have been better spent by the DOE investing in strategies to reduce plastic production, and increase plastic alternatives.

Kelly Speakes – Backman, principal deputy assistant secretary at the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, stated that plastic pollution must be addressed using a multidimensional approach and that chemical recycling is an option. In a Grist statement, Speakes-Backman stated that “designing plastics to make them more easily recyclable or biodegradable, as well as developing viable recycling routes, are critical steps towards reducing plastic waste, new use, and the associated emission.

Plastic bottles in a recycling bin in Santa Monica. Less than 9 percent of U.S. plastics were recycled in 2018.
Citizen of the Planet / Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Scientists and advocacy groups have long promoted a reduction in plastic manufacturing. Plastic production facilities burden disproportionately low-income and nonwhite communities with toxic air pollution, and the U.S. only recycles a pitifully small fraction of the 42 million metric tons of plastic waste it generates every year. Experts say that phasing down plastic production — as a high-profile report from the National Academies of Sciences recommended last month — is a logical first step toward eliminating pollution. As Melissa Valliant, senior communications manager for the nonprofit Oceana,

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