Three miles downriver from my childhood home sits a patch of land that embodies a fierce debate dividing climate activists, municipal governments, and industry. On the banks of the Susquehanna River, in the rural community of Point Township, Pennsylvania, is the site of the proposed Encina Point Township Circular Manufacturing Facility. Encina is a self-described “circular products” startup based in a suburb of Houston, Texas. The proposed facility would convert post-consumer waste plastic into raw materials for industrial use, using a carbon- and energy-intensive process known as catalytic pyrolysis. This facility would be the first of its kind to be demonstrated at scale, and its successful construction and operation would be a key step in launching a national and global chemical recycling industry. Since its inception, the project has been riddled with controversy, as the town raises concerns about pollution, public nuisance, and physical impacts to the river. 

From environmentalists to economists, the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that we need to do something about plastic waste. The world currently produces 380 million tons of plastic per year, and that number is expected to reach 500 million tons by 2050. In the United States, 85 percent of plastic waste is landfilled, while 10 percent is incinerated, leaving only about five percent to be recycled. The low recycling rate isn’t primarily due to consumers neglecting to recycle—it can largely be attributed to the high cost of plastics recycling. Both in the United States and globally, there simply aren’t enough recycling facilities to manage the massive influx of waste. For most producers, it’s simply cheaper to produce a new plastic item than it is to recycle an old one—the tedious process of sorting, melting, and reforming post-consumer plastic usually results in a lower quality product than the original.

Encina says that it has a solution—it will essentially reverse the process of plastic formation, using chemical catalysts and extreme heat—up to 930 degrees Fahrenheit—to produce raw materials for other industrial processes. This approach has the advantage of producing a “value-added” product—rather than producing low quality plastic, it creates industrially useful materials. The value added by creating these useful materials helps to make the project more economically viable. Catalysis also requires less extensive sorting of plastics than conventional plastics recycling, which reduces processing costs. Compared to plastic incineration, the process also releases less hazardous air pollution and uses less energy. 

But are those benefits worth the risks? Sandy Field, leader of the anti-Encina activist organization Save Our Susquehanna, thinks not. Field is the chair of the local chapter of the Climate Reality Project and a trained biochemist who works as a freelance science and medical writer. She sees Encina as an example of greenwashing, an attempt to co-opt the sentiments of environmental activists for profit. 

Field expressed concern that a chemical plastics recycling industry would exacerbate the climate crisis by creating infrastructure that would further entrench the production of single-use plastics, encouraging further emissions and perpetuating the crisis of waste management. And although chemical recycling is in most cases less energy-intensive than incineration, it still requires large inputs of energy to achieve the extreme temperatures it requires to break the incredibly strong plastic bonds. Currently, this energy almost exclusively comes from fossil fuels. Catalytic pyrolysis also releases nine times more greenhouse gas emissions than mechanical recycling. 

Field emphasizes that this is not just an issue of local nuisance, but rather an international concern. She warns,“If they build this, and they get their foot in the door on this one, they’re going to build more.” The industry of chemical recycling may present a major hurdle to decarbonization– addressing the plastic waste crisis while exacerbating the climate crisis.

Of particular concern is pollution of the Susquehanna River, and its impacts on the entire watershed. Although Encina insists that they “will be in compliance with rules and regulations in place for preventing air, water, and noise pollution,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the agency primarily responsible for regulating hazardous pollutants, does not currently regulate microplastics in wastewater, aside from the microbeads used in cleansers and personal care products. Even if the facility complies with all EPA regulations, microplastics could escape in the wastewater. Even the products that Encina intends to manufacture—benzene, toluene, xylene, and propylene—are widely understood to be carcinogenic. Although Encina insists that all fumes from chemical processes will be contained within the building, flaring of gasses will almost certainly be necessary to relieve pressure inside the building in the event of a disruption in the system. Encina concedes, “emergency use of a flare will be part of the design.” 

The proposed facility would also pump up to 2.9 million gallons of water per day from the Susquehanna River to cool equipment exposed to extremely high temperatures and to wash plastic waste before it undergoes pyrolysis. Local environmental groups are concerned that this intake will pose a threat to the river’s fish species and could affect the overall flow of the river. These impacts could extend beyond Pennsylvania. As the largest contributor of freshwater to the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna plays a vital role in the nation’s largest estuary, an incredibly productive ecosystem that provides drinking water, seafood, recreation, and tourism that is vital to the economies of seven northeastern states. 

The facility is sited in the Susquehanna’s 100-year floodplain. On average the Susquehanna floods once every 15 years, but as climate change intensifies heavy precipitation events and strengthens the Atlantic hurricane season, that risk is increasing. A catastrophic flood could overwhelm the facility, releasing toxic chemicals into the river and surrounding ecosystem. And even if Encina can mitigate this risk, it will have to convince the local community—a community accustomed to housing flood victims and building levees—that a chemicals manufacturing facility on the banks of the Susquehanna can stand. 

Encina has countered many of these complaints, insisting that it will comply with “all applicable best practices for ensuring safety.” Regarding potential pollution, it has assured residents: “Our system is engineered to keep these products inside pipes and equipment with redundancies and emergency response procedures in place.” 

Many local residents support development of the Encia plant. It is expected to create 600-900 temporary construction jobs, and up to 300 permanent engineering and technical jobs. A local economic development organization, Driving Innovation for a Vibrant Economy, which owns the site of the proposed plant, estimates that the plant could add up to $1 billion to the township’s economy. That is especially significant given that the plant would be located in a region where median household income is roughly 28 percent below the national average

To date, 24 states have enacted laws promoting the use of chemical recycling by classifying the process as manufacturing rather than waste management. In many states, this qualifies chemical recycling facilities for economic incentives including tax breaks or subsidies. Allowing chemical recycling enterprises to avoid being labeled as waste incinerators also significantly relaxes the standards that they face under state-level air quality management legislation. While manufacturing facilities are typically subject to strict air pollution monitoring and reduction requirements under state law, solid waste management plants enjoy more relaxed standards in most states. Pennsylvania is one of the states to take this legal route. Pennsylvania’s 2020 Act 127 amends the Pennsylvania Solid Waste Management Act to classify “advanced recycling plants” such as Encina as manufacturing facilities rather than waste management facilities. This change exempts chemical recycling projects from the lengthy and extensive process of applying for permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for processing or treatment of plastics. 

Similar efforts have been made on the federal level to classify chemical recycling as manufacturing rather than waste management under the Clean Air Act. Labeling chemical recycling processes as waste management subjects them to stricter air quality monitoring standards than those that apply to manufacturing facilities. In 2020, EPA proposed to reclassify chemical recycling as manufacturing. However, after backlash from environmentalists and a change of administration, EPA announced on May 24 that it would not change its classification. Even with this decision in place, future administrations could significantly promote the chemical recycling industry by reversing this decision.

One of the most fascinating features of the debate about chemical recycling is its multi-partisan nature. Environmentalists and private citizens alike are torn between the alleviation of waste management issues and the potential environmental and climate impacts. Field points out the broadness of the coalition SOS has created, saying, “The group is really a diverse group; it’s Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists like me, and people who have never opposed anything in their lives.” As states and municipalities flesh out their plans for decarbonization, chemical recycling will be a contentious issue that could shape the character of decarbonization and zero-waste policies.

As for the local activists opposing Encina, this is not just a “Not in my backyard (N.I.M.B.Y.)” fight. As Sandy Field promises, “We’re in it for the long haul. Even if they go to another site, we’re going to go help the people at that site.” Ultimately the decision of whether to chemically recycle is a matter of values– weighing economics against safety concerns, climate risks against waste management. For Field, the path is clear: “We have all of the solutions that we need right now but they’re hard things—they’re building community, being sustainable, using less energy, using less plastic.” As both Point Township and the world face the complexities of decarbonization, Field’s advice to make the hard choice, to engage with others, and to persist, provide vital guidance.