"Advanced Recycling" of Plastic Waste in Virginia

different types of plastic, with different chemistry, complicate efforts to recycle
different types of plastic, with different chemistry, complicate efforts to recycle
Source: United Nations Environment Programme, Our planet is choking on plastic

The United Nations reports that the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material since the 1970's. The tiny plastic fibers in cigarette butts are the most common plastic waste in the environment, with plastic waste used for food items (bottles and caps, grocery bags, food wrappers, etc.) the second-most common.

Waste discarded on the ground ends up washing into rivers. Along the Mississippi River, almost 75% of the litter is plastic. The strong carbon-carbon bond increases durability and resistance to degradation. Plastic discarded on the ground ultimately ends up as microplastic particles in the ocean - and in human bodies across the world.

Statistics vary according to country and organization generating the data, but the percentage of recycled plastic is always low. The United Nations Environmental Programme reports:1

Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once and then thrown away...

From the 1950s to the 1970s, only a small amount of plastic was produced, and as a result, plastic waste was relatively manageable... Today, we produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year... approximately 85 per cent of which ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste.

less than 10% of the plastic captured in the waste stream is recycled into new material of some sort
less than 10% of the plastic captured in the waste stream is recycled into new material of some sort
Source: Government Accountability Office (GAO), Science & Tech Spotlight: Advanced Plastic Recycling (GAO-21-105317)

The problem is increasing. The National Academy of Sciences estimated that so the plastic reaching the ocean is equivalent to dumping a garbage truck of it into the ocean every minute. By 2030, the amount of plastic reaching the ocean each year would be equivalent to half of the total weight of fish caught each year.2

The business model for plastic recycling in the United States was, until 2017, based upon shipping the material to China for sorting, grinding, cleaning, melting and remolding. However, China changed its policy in 2017 and stopped accepting most recyclable materials.

That decision forced existing businesses collecting waste to change how they separated and sold recyclable products. Not all recycling businesses could adjust successfully.

For example, the scale of operations at Container Rentals and Recycling outside of Charlottesville was too small to provide adequate revenue for upgrading the equipment, or for storing recycled product until finding new customers to purchase plastics, paper, glass and metals. The company dropped out of the recycling business in 2018, and stopped accepting waste other than construction and demolition debris (CDD).3

competition for processing recyclables in Charlottesville ended when Container Rentals and Recycling dropped out of the business in 2018
competition for processing recyclables in Charlottesville ended when Container Rentals and Recycling dropped out of the business in 2018
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

While the market for #1 plastic (polyethylene terephthalate, PET or PETE) and #2 plastic (high density polyethylene or HDPE) remained viable, municipalities stopped trying to recycle #3 (polyvinyl chloride or PVC), #4 (low-density polyethylene), #5 (polypropylene), #6 (polystyrene) and other forms.

Without a market for that plastic waste, in the short run more of it had to be incinerated or landfilled. China's decision did trigger development of proposals to recycle plastics in a new manner in "advanced recycling" facilities.

Advanced recycling processes plastics used heat and chemical processes, rather than physical shredding, to convert polymers to monomers which served as "feedstock" materials for new plastic production. Plastic waste is chopped into small material, then heated to 800-1,500° Fahrenheit. At that temperature, and with the help of catalysts, the carbon-carbon bonds break. Some material forms a char which is discarded as a non-hazardous waste, while most ends up as a pyrolysis oil which is fed into a small-scale refinery.

The oil is vaporized by heat in a low-oxygen environment to create different gases. They are separated in the refinery into naptha, diesel fuel, and wax. The naptha is then cobnverted back into different types of plastic for manufacturing new products. At least in theory, advanced recycling can also convert plastic waste into jet fuel.

Another process uses both chemical and biological action to convert plastics with tough polymer chains into smaller molecules. That technique, still in the research stage, uses an initial chemical process to degrade the large polymers into a form which can be digested by the bacterium Pseudomonas putida. Different types of plastic are converted to re-useable molecules at different temperatures, so scaling the process to be cost-effective in a commercial setting is still in the future.

advanced recycling creates feedstock for producing new plastic items
advanced recycling creates feedstock for producing new plastic items
Source: Government Accountability Office (GAO), Science & Tech Spotlight: Advanced Plastic Recycling (GAO-21-105317)

Critics question how much of the plastic is actually recycled into a useful products rather than simply incinerated, potentially releasing dioxin and endocrine disruptors from the plastic into the atmosphere. Opponents of an advanced recycling plant proposed in Indiana claimed less than 20% of the plastic was actually recycled.4

Braven Environmental and Governor Northam announced plans in 2020 to open the first advanced recycling plant in Virginia in Cumberland County. Hauling recyclables is a major expense, and affects the feasibility of locating new advanced recycling facilities. Assuming each advanced recycling facility would draw from a 150-mile supply radius, Virginia might end up with six advanced recycling plants.5

In 2021, the General Assembly designated "advanced recycling" facilities as manufacturing rather than as waste management facilities. That designation exempted them from requirements in the state's Solid Waste Management Act that regulated landfills, incinerators, and waste transfer stations.

Opponents objected to the bill proposed by Del. Ken Plum, generating this rejoinder from an advocate of advanced recycling:6

Hard plastics like milk and beverage bottles are typically recycled through mechanical recycling where the plastic is cleaned, shredded, melted and turned into pellets. But flexible plastics are not because the cost and complexity, combined with potential contamination and impurities, make them unsuitable. Among the most common non-recyclables: Styrofoam and grocery bags. But new advanced recycling technologies now make it possible to break down post-use plastics previously unrecyclable and convert them into everyday products...

But some groups couldn't resist getting involved at the last minute, derailing Plum’s bill back to committee by raising the misleading specter of burning plastic belching smoke into pristine Virginia skies. In actuality, what is done is not incineration, which requires oxygen. Instead, plastic is super-heated in an oxygen-free container until the contents melt and can be separated into components for different uses.

The Environmental Protection Agency had calculated in 2018 that less than 10% of plastic waste was being recycled. The material being recycled depended upon the number stamped on the plastic. Almost 30% of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and High-Density Polyethylene (HPDE) plastic, used for bottles and other items labelled #1 and #2, were recycled.7

most plastic that gets into the waste stream is landfilled, while plastic that never gets into a trash container ends up in the oceans
most plastic that gets into the waste stream is landfilled, while plastic that never gets into a trash container ends up in the oceans
Source: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Plastics: Material-Specific Data

In Virginia, 1.3 million tons of plastic waste were being buried in landfills. Advanced recycling advocates projected the new plants could push total plastics recycling to 65%, capturing the #3 (polyvinyl chloride or PVC), #4 (low-density polyethylene), #5 (polypropylene), and #6 (polystyrene) items. Being able to dump all plastics into a common recycling bin also might capture the high percentage of #1 plastic (polyethylene terephthalate, PET or PETE) and #2 plastic (high density polyethylene or HDPE) items that go into landfills or oceans.

Source: American Chemistry Council, Cooking with Blair - Recycling Facts

The reclassification of advanced recycling facilities managed to get through the General Assembly in 2021 after it was linked to a separate bill limiting the use of polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers for take-out food. The "Great Polystyrene Compromise of 2021" banned major restaurant chains from using non-biodegradable plastic foam by 2023. Small restaurants were given two extra years, until 2025, to adopt new packaging techniques for take-out food orders.

To set an example, Governor Northam issued Executive Order 77 ending purchase of single-use plastics by all state agencies and higher education institutions in 2021. State facilities could no longer use polystyrene food service containers, plastic straws, plastic knives/forks/spoons, or single-use plastic water bottles, unless needed for medical, public health, or public safety use. Exemptions were allowed, and the next governor had the option of revising Northam's order, but he directed that appropriate alternative replacement items be implemented for all state agency uses by the end of 2025.

Opponents of the polystyrene ban highlighted the economic impacts on small vendors. The Virginia Manufacturers Association stated that environmentally sustainable alternatives were not available for all items and few jurisdictions had facilities for composting the alternatives. The organization claimed that Executive Order 77 would replace 14.4 million metric tons of plastic packaging with 64 million tons of other material that would end up in landfills.

Some also objected because the reduction of polystyrene use would reduce the flow of one-use plastic material to advanced recycling facilities. The sponsor in the General Assembly for the ban on polystyrene responded:8

...we all know there's enough plastic around... it's not going to hurt the manufactured recycling not to have the polystyrene.

recyclable #1 and #2 plastics from Charlottesville were being hauled to North Carolina for processing in 2020, when plans were announced for an advanced recycling plant in Cumberland County
recyclable #1 and #2 plastics from Charlottesville were being hauled to North Carolina for processing in 2020, when plans were announced for an advanced recycling plant in Cumberland County
Source: Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, Recycling Update - February 2020

China was not accepting plastic waste and industry forecasters predicted plastic production would double by 2040, but the commercial viability of advanced recycling facilities was questionable. By 2021 the American Chemistry Council had successfully lobbied the Virginia General Assembly and 13 other state legislatures to classify advanced recycling facilities as manufacturing sites, exempting them from landfill and waste management regulations.

Creating the opportunity to reuse plastic was designed in part to block states from establishing a tax on plastic bags and other "polluter-pays" measure. Focusing on recycling rather than waste avoidance was one reason the Virginia Conservation Network objected to the Great Polystyrene Compromise of 2021. Some opponents described advanced recycling as just "greenwashing" to:9

...to convince the public that plastic can be repurposed as a fuel source, rather than acknowledge that plastics cause demonstrable and irreversible harm to our environment.

In 2021 the technology for converting waste plastic into diesel/jet fuel and clean plastic resin was still immature; costs remained higher than profits. The technology was based on heating the waste in a closed container that blocked oxygen, causing the plastic molecules to melt and separate without bursting into flame.

The US Department of Energy successfully demonstrated in 2022 how pyrolysis could be used to recover the fibers and polymers in wind turbine blades, recycling what otherwise would go into a landfill. A company chose to develop a commercial facility near Knoxville, Tennessee, to recycle 5,000–7,000 fiberglass wind turbine blades annually.10

Transport of unsorted plastics to an advanced recycling facility, followed by controlled pyrolysis with little or no oxygen, appeared to produce more greenhouse gases than the alternatives of standard incineration or landfilling. Worse, pyrolysis created dioxins and other toxic gases.

The quality of the plastics being recycled was part of the problem. Garbage collectors had no way to limit associated food waste and other contaminants placed in the recycling bins before pickup, limiting the quality of the desired end products. Efforts to reproduce waste-to-fuel operations in a laboratory with full-scale facilities capable of handling the wastes of hundreds of thousands of people led to business failures and decisions in other states, such as Idaho, to abandon advanced recycling at least temporarily.11

Virginia was the 10th state to approved advanced recycling, but in 2020 the General Assembly also authorized local jurisdictions to impose a $0.05 tax on disposable plastic bags. The City of Roanoke was the first to approve a bag tax. The goal was not to raise money, but to alter the behavior of shoppers. A city official noted that the bag tax was:12

...the tax you can avoid.

In early 2022, Braven Environmental cancelled its plans to build an advanced recycling facility in Cumberland County, without explanation. In September, a different company announced plans for a $1.1 billion chemical recycling plant near Harrisburg in Pennsylvania to turn waste plastic into naphtha and then new plastic. The facility would have the capacity to recycle 450,000 tons of plastic waste annually from Pittsburgh, New York and Philadelphia, but was not targeting the Virginia market.13

In April, Governor Youngkin issued an Executive Order that tasked the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to identify how Virginia could attract opportunities for attracting post-consumer recycled product business entities to the state:14

The report shall identify:
1. The waste-stream requirements for PCR companies to locate within the Commonwealth.
2. Identify incentives offered to PCR companies in other States and identify feasible options in the Commonwealth.
3. Identify potential geographic areas within the Commonwealth to focus on new clean technology business development, with particular emphasis in rural areas.

At the same time, Governor Youngkin dropped the requirement established earlier by Governor Northam that state agencies phase out single-use plastics by the end of 2025 and the General Assembly reconsidered its mandate to end the use of plastic foam containers made from polystyrene. The retreat from banning plastic containers may have been affected by lobbying from the natural gas industry. If plastic containers were banned, then there would be reduced use of natural gas as a feedstock for production of plastic.15

The legislature postponed its ban on use of polystyrene for food containers for five more years. The deadline for restaurants with 20 or more locations was pushed back from 2023 to 2028, and the 2025 deadline for all restaurants was pushed back from 2025 to 2030.

The 2021 General Assembly had reached a compromise on authorizing advanced recycling facilities by also agreeing on the deadlines for banning polustyrene. The 2022 change caused on negotiator to say:16

The fact that we had a compromise last year, bipartisan, bicameral, with the industry and with the environmental groups, and here we are today we find language stuck into the middle of a budget that says this bill won't go into effect for five years, I think that's a showing of some bad faith by some parties.

Landfills in Virginia

Maplewood Recycling and Waste Disposal Facility in Amelia County

Municipal Solid Waste in Virginia

Recycling in Virginia

by design, the molecules that create plastic items degrade very slowly
by design, the molecules that create plastic items degrade very slowly
Source: World Wildlife Federation, The lifecycle of plastics



1. "Our planet is choking on plastic," United Nations Environment Programme, https://www.unep.org/interactives/beat-plastic-pollution/ (last checked September 19, 2022)
2. "Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste," National Academy of Sciences Consensus Study Report, December 2021, https://nap.nationalacademies.org/resource/26132/Ocean_Plastic_Waste_Highlights_2021.pdf (last checked September 19, 2022)
3. "Our Mission," Van der Linde Container Rentals and Recycling, https://www.vanderlinderecycling.com/our-mission/; "Van der Linde dumps its recycling program," C'Ville, March 14, 2018, https://www.c-ville.com/van-der-linde-dumps-recycling-program/; "Waste authority alleges racketeering in civil suit," Daily Progress, September 10, 2009, https://dailyprogress.com/news/waste-authority-alleges-racketeering-in-civil-suit/article_258d77d2-afe0-5674-b762-00f00f55d2d7.html; "Waste Works lawsuit for dumb-dumbs: or a busy citizens guide to the local waste war," The Hook, January 13, 2010, http://www.readthehook.com/69172/waste-works-lawsuit-dumb-dumbs-or-busy-citizens-guide-local-waste-war; "Van der Linde dumps its recycling program," C'Ville, March 14, 2018, https://www.c-ville.com/van-der-linde-dumps-recycling-program/ (last checked February 8, 2021)
4. "A New Plant in Indiana Uses a Process Called 'Pyrolysis' to Recycle Plastic Waste. Critics Say It's Really Just Incineration," Inside Climate News, September 11, 2022, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/11092022/indiana-plant-pyrolysis-plastic-recycling/; "Heat and bacteria recycle mixed plastics into useful chemicals," Nature, October 13, 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-03271-w (last checked October 19, 2022)
5. "Lawmakers are considering adding 'advanced recycling' to state code. So what exactly is it?," Virginia Mercury, January 25, 2021, https://www.virginiamercury.com/2021/01/25/lawmakers-are-considering-adding-advanced-recycling-to-state-code-so-what-exactly-is-it/; "Governor Northam Announces Braven Environmental to Create 52 New Jobs in Cumberland County," Governor of Virginia news release, June 2, 2020, https://www.governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/all-releases/2020/june/headline-857143-en.html (last checked February 5, 2021)
6. "After dying in the House, advanced recycling bill hangs on in the Senate," Virginia Mercury, February 5, 2021, https://www.virginiamercury.com/2021/02/05/after-dying-in-the-house-advanced-recycling-bill-hangs-on-in-the-senate/; "Understanding the Environmental Impacts of Chemical Recycling – Ten concerns with existing life cycle assessments," GAIA, https://www.no-burn.org/understanding-the-environmental-impacts-of-chemical-recycling-ten-concerns-with-existing-life-cycle-assessments/; Chris Braunlich, "Advanced Recycling: A Win-Win for Virginia," Bacon's Rebellion, February 2, 2021, https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/advanced-recycling-a-win-win-for-virginia/ (last checked February 7, 2021)
7. "Plastics: Material-Specific Data," Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data (last checked September 18, 2022)
8. "Advanced recycling bill goes to governor after ‘Great Polystyrene Compromise of 2021’," Virginia Mercury, February 24, 2021, https://www.virginiamercury.com/2021/02/24/advanced-recycling-bill-goes-to-governor-after-great-polystyrene-compromise-of-2021/; "Northam orders state agencies, colleges and universities to stop using single-use plastics," Virginia Mercury, March 23, 2021, https://www.virginiamercury.com/2021/03/23/northam-orders-state-agencies-colleges-and-universities-to-stop-using-single-use-plastics/; "Virginia Leading By Example To Reduce Plastic Pollution And Solid Waste," Executive Order #77, Office of the Governor, March 23, 2021, https://www.governor.virginia.gov/media/governorvirginiagov/executive-actions/EO-77-Virginia-Leading-by-Example-to-Reduce-Plastic-Pollution-and-Solid-Waste.pdf; Brett Vassey, "Northam Plastics Order Will Backfire," Bacon's Rebellion blog, October 13, 2021, https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/northam-plastics-order-will-backfire/ (last checked October 18, 2021)
9. "American Chemistry Council Applauds Virginia's Advanced Recycling Law," Plastics Today, March 30, 2021, https://www.plasticstoday.com/advanced-recycling/american-chemistry-council-applauds-virginias-advanced-recycling-law; "Bill of the Day: Oppose Chemical Conversion (SB1164)," Virginia Conservation Network, February 16, 2021, https://vcnva.org/chemical-conversion/ (last checked October 12, 2021)
10. "Carbon Rivers Makes Wind Turbine Blade Recycling and Upcycling a Reality With Support from DOE," US Department of Energy, July 22, 2022, https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/articles/carbon-rivers-makes-wind-turbine-blade-recycling-and-upcycling-reality-support (last checked July 26, 2022)
11. "The Recycling Myth: Big Oil's Solution For Plastic Waste Littered With Failure," Reuters, July 29, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/environment-plastic-oil-recycling/ (last checked October 12, 2021)
12. "Virginia governor signs advanced recycling bill into law," WasteDive, February 25, 2021, https://www.wastedive.com/news/virginia-foam-packaging-ban-advanced-recycling/595665/; "Guidelines for the Virginia Disposable Plastic Bag Tax," Virginia Department of Taxation, https://www.tax.virginia.gov/laws-rules-decisions/rulings-tax-commissioner/21-117; "Roanoke approves plastic shopping bag tax; set to take effect Jan. 1," The Roanoke Times, May 18, 2021, https://roanoke.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/roanoke-approves-plastic-shopping-bag-tax-set-to-take-effect-jan-1/article_858d88ba-b76e-11eb-b00f-bbf376db964e.html (last checked October 12, 2021)
13. "Braven No Longer Coming," Farmville Herald, January 7, 2022, https://www.farmvilleherald.com/2022/01/braven-no-longer-coming/; "A Houston Firm Says It's Opening a Billion-Dollar Chemical Recycling Plant in a Small Pennsylvania Town. How Does It Work?," Inside Climate News, September 6, 2022, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/06092022/chemical-advanced-recycling-plastics-pennsylvania/ (last checked September 18, 2022)
14. "Recognizing the Value of Recycling and Waste Reduction," Executive Order Number 17, Governor of Virginia, https://www.governor.virginia.gov/media/governorvirginiagov/governor-of-virginia/pdf/eo/EO-17-Recognizing-The-Value-of-Recycling-and-Waste-Reduction.pdf (last checked April 21, 2022)
15. "Youngkin promotes recycling but discards Va. program to ban plastics," Washington Post, April 7, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/04/07/youngkin-recycling-plastics-ban/; "What new Virginia laws reveal about how the natural gas industry sees its future," Virginia Mercury, April 21, 2022, https://www.virginiamercury.com/2022/04/21/what-new-virginia-laws-reveal-about-how-the-natural-gas-industry-sees-its-future/ (last checked April 21, 2022)
16. "After months of wrangling, Virginia has a budget deal. What's in it?," Virginia Mercury, June 1, 2022, https://www.virginiamercury.com/2022/06/01/after-months-of-wrangling-virginia-has-a-budget-deal-whats-in-it/; "Budgets call for polystyrene ban delay, despite 2021 compromise," Virginia Mercury, February 24, 2022, https://www.virginiamercury.com/blog-va/budgets-call-for-polystyrene-ban-delay-despite-2021-compromise/ (last checked June 1, 2022)

Waste Management in Virginia
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