This story was published by Inside Climate News.

The message on the signs at the recycling drop-off site here was clear, and warmly welcomed by area residents who visited on a recent autumn Saturday to stuff bags of plastic waste into large green metal containers.

“All plastic, all numbers, all symbols,” proclaims one sign at the recycling site in Houston’s suburban Kingwood community, referring to the seven standard types of plastics, commonly identified on a plastic product by a number inside a “chasing arrows” icon. “Bag it and bring it,” reads another.

Normally, recycling programs limit what kinds of plastic they accept, ruling out types that are difficult if not impossible to recycle. So Ken White, a resident of Kingwood, a leafy master-planned community known as “the livable forest,” was taking full advantage of the opportunity on that sunny morning. 

Bag by bag, he was tossing “everything that is plastic” into bins bearing the names of the Houston Recycling Collaboration, ExxonMobil and three other companies. “Styrofoam. Plastic bottles. Plastic wrap. Bubble wrap,” White said with a grin of appreciation. “It’s great. I hate just throwing it away if it can be reused.”

The Kingwood site is one of two all-plastics depositories rolled out in the past year as part of a nearly two-year old collaboration between the city of Houston and Big Oil. The goal is to boost the dismal plastic recycling rates in Houston, which are thought to be even lower than the national average of 6 percent, and—however paradoxically—turn this petrochemical and plastics manufacturing hub into a model of responsibility for other cities struggling with that problem.

But the effort is opaque, and dogged by contradictions. The city and its partners have shrouded their collaboration in secrecy. Electronic tracking by an environmental group indicates that the plastic waste isn’t getting repurposed, although families hoped it was going to a new chemical recycling operation opened late last year by ExxonMobil at its nearby Baytown Complex. And a planned $100 million plastic sorting center needed to fulfill the coalition’s vision of Houston as a hub for chemical, or “advanced,” recycling remains unfunded and behind schedule. 

Ken White, a resident of Houston’s Kingwood community, dropped off bags of plastic waste for recycling on a Saturday in September.
Ken White, a resident of Houston’s Kingwood community, dropped off bags of plastic waste for recycling on a Saturday in September. (Ana Bueno / Univision 45)

While none of the partners in the recycling collaboration would speak for the program as a whole, the city underlines that the effort is new and argues that progress will come. Still, environmentalists fret that scaling up chemical recycling could add to the pollution burden of Houston’s low-income and minority communities and prove a successful ploy to entrench the nation’s fossil fuel economy.

There are multiple warning signs. On Tuesday, the environmental groups Beyond Plastics and the International Pollutants Elimination Network issued a report documenting decades-old challenges to the chemical recycling of plastics. Titled “Chemical Recycling: A Dangerous Deception,” the 159-page paper identifies 11 chemical recycling plants in the United States that were at least partly operating as of September, often with government support. 

Revelations by a watchdog group reinforce doubts about chemical recycling, a technology promoted by the city in a collaboration with ExxonMobil and other companies.

The challenges at those plants include a low output of recycled plastics; the production of hazardous waste like toxic chemicals and heavy metals; fires and oil spills at production units; and questions of commercial viability, the report said. The technology “has failed for decades, continues to fail, and there is no evidence that it will contribute to resolving the plastics pollution crisis,” the two advocacy groups conclude.

Revelations From Apple Airtags

Plastic products are made with thousands of different chemicals. Because of those varied properties, many cannot be recycled on their own or when combined with other types. In addition to multiple layers of different plastics, a single product may contain metals that cannot be recycled, and food or chemical residue can hamper recycling equipment. 

It’s a mess, which helps to explain the national plastic recycling rate of less than 6 percent.

Resolving to reverse that pattern, the city of Houston launched the local recycling collaboration in January 2022, signing a memorandum of understanding with ExxonMobil, the petrochemical corporation LyondellBasell and the recycling companies Cyclyx International (owned in part by ExxonMobil and LyondellBasell) and FCC Environmental Services. 

By December, ExxonMobil’s new all-plastics recycling facility was up and running at commercial capacity at the Baytown Complex, the oil and gas giant’s sprawling petrochemical site 25 miles east of the city. ExxonMobil touted the facility as a linchpin of the Houston collaboration’s effort and the first of several it was considering at its petrochemical plants worldwide.

The same month, the Kingwood drop-off site began accepting all plastics in plastic bags. When a reporter visited the depository in late September, White and two other Houstonians interviewed there said that while they weren’t sure where their plastic was going, they assumed it would travel to Baytown for recycling.

Marketing materials at Kingwood and the city’s other all-plastics depository, the North Main Neighborhood Recycling Center in North Houston, prominently display the logos of ExxonMobil and its recycling partners, and press releases from those companies and the city have highlighted the new recycling facility at Baytown as part of the collaboration. In public interviews and news reports, ExxonMobil officials have described the Kingwood drop-off location in particular as an eventual source of plastic for the company’s recycling at Baytown.

Some experts were skeptical about the announcements. Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and consultant who founded the plastics-oriented environmental group The Last Beach Cleanup, said she grew suspicious when she read about the Houston Recycling Collaboration’s plans for advanced recycling of a full range of plastics at the Baytown complex.

“I’m a chemical engineer, and I know that there are no factories actually recycling some of this stuff,” Dell said between bites of a taco at a restaurant near the Kingwood depository. “So I wanted to know where it went.”

So between June and September, she and volunteers for her group dropped 11 Apple AirTag tracking devices into the bins at the Kingwood and North Main sites.

All of the tags led them to an open-air site run by Wright Waste Management 20 miles northwest of downtown Houston, Dell said. Arriving at the location, she found the traced plastic bags and other plastic waste tossed alongside a fence—a fire hazard in the city’s triple-digit summer heat, she noted with concern.

She and other environmental advocates maintain that anyone using the collaboration’s two all-plastics drop-off sites—separate from Houston’s curbside recycling program, which only takes certain plastics—could only have assumed that they were sending their waste to be recycled chemically. 

Apple AirTags placed in waste plastic at two all-plastics Houston recycling drop off centers by The Last Beach Cleanup went to this pile of waste in northwest Houston instead to a recycling facility.
Apple AirTags placed in waste plastic at two all-plastics Houston recycling drop off centers by The Last Beach Cleanup went to this pile of waste in northwest Houston instead to a recycling facility. (James Bruggers / Inside Climate News)

The City’s Response

Asked about the whereabouts of the plastic collected in Kingwood and North Main, Mark Wilfalk, who leads the city of Houston’s solid waste management division, said at first that the all-plastic waste was being “safely stockpiled in permitted warehouses.” 

When informed of the evidence that at least some of it was dumped outdoors at Wright Waste Management, Wilfalk acknowledged that the plastic had been taken there, nodding his head. He added that he had spoken with a local fire marshal to make sure that the facility had the permits needed to operate.

Stratton Wright, the owner and president of Wright Waste Management, later confirmed that his outdoor business was storing waste from the collaboration’s two all-plastics drop-off locations. “Everything is on the up-and-up,” he said. (The company bills itself as Texas’s “premier waste-to-energy logistics coordinator.”)

Wilfalk emphasized that Houston’s all-plastics recycling initiative was still relatively new. “We’re still at the beginning phases of this program,” he said of the collaboration. “So what we first have to do is understand the type of materials that we have. Let’s get it all together. And then let’s characterize it and then let’s see what we can do with it.” 

He pointed out that the memorandum of understanding that launched the collaboration restricts what the partners can say publicly. “I don’t want to go too deeply into that because of the fact that you have some other folks who have proprietary information,” he said, before declining to comment further.

Asked about its role in the Houston collaboration, ExxonMobil underlined the company’s support for chemical recycling. 

“Advanced recycling is a proven technology that can help accelerate a circular economy and address the challenge of plastic waste,” Julie King, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement. “That’s why we’re working with others to help increase the amount of plastics that enter the supply chain, so more plastics can be recycled instead of ending up in landfill.”

But for Dell, who has used Apple AirTags in California to track unrecycled yogurt tubs to Mexico and plastic bags to Malaysia, the fact that the plastic tracked in Houston wasn’t being recycled suggests that the joint initiative is more of a public relations exercise than a solution. 

“As the Texas saying goes, they are all hat and no cattle when it comes to what is really happening,” she said of the collaborative.

“Advanced” Recycling: Can It Work?

The vast majority of plastic waste that does get recycled in the United States—mainly bottles and jugs labeled “1” or “2,” which indicates their respective resin types—has gone through a mechanical process of sorting, shredding, melting and remolding into new plastic products. Studies show that the rest largely goes to landfills or incinerators, which are both significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions and, in the case of the incinerators, other air pollutants. The rest generally becomes litter.

Across the nation and in other countries, meanwhile, the chemical industry has been promoting what it calls advanced or chemical recycling as an alternative for plastics that are less compatible with mechanical recycling.

Unlike mechanical recycling, which does not fundamentally change a plastic’s structure, chemical recycling relies on a range of advanced processes such as pyrolysis or gasification—technologies used to heat plastic waste at high temperatures in chambers with little or no oxygen—to turn that waste back into basic chemical building blocks. These ingredients can then be reformulated as feedstock for new plastic products or fossil fuels. 

Environmentalists have argued, however, that chemical recycling is not only a form of greenwashing but an incentive to keep producing plastic, bolstering the petrochemical industry. Members of Congress have urged the Environmental Protection Agency to closely monitor its effects on the environment, given that the EPA regulates pyrolysis and gasification as forms of incineration.

Meanwhile, the chemical industry has yet to demonstrate any large-scale, commercially viable methods to recycle mixed plastic household waste. 

The report issued Tuesday by Beyond Plastics and the International Pollutants Elimination Network pronounces the decades-long effort to establish chemical recycling to be a failure. 

“Plastic waste is expensive to collect, sort and clean, and its variety of different chemicals, colors and polymers makes it inherently too difficult to be made into new plastic products,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator who is president of Beyond Plastics.

With public pressure growing for the chemical industry to take responsibility for the plastic waste that is choking oceans and settling into the human body, chemical recycling is “the chemical industry’s last-ditch effort to convince the world that they can recycle their way out of the mess,” the report concludes.

Chemical recycling has struggled in a number of U.S. communities. For example, in central Pennsylvania, residents have fought plans by the Houston start-up Encina to build a $1 billion chemical recycling plant that would block their views and potentially threaten the Susquehanna River. Health and safety complaints have plagued Brightmark’s troubled plant in Ashley, Indiana, where workers have told Inside Climate News of fires and oil spills.

It’s into that void that the Houston Recycling Collaboration stepped in early 2022, with a sense among some industry followers that if any city in the country could make advanced recycling work, it would be Houston, with its expertise in petrochemicals.

Industry leaders in the city, the nation’s fourth largest, have steadily promoted the notion of “circularity,” invoking an economy in which products are manufactured from waste without tapping new natural resources and conceivably go on to have multiple lives as polymers are broken down and reconstituted in various ways.

“Houston has an enormous competitive advantage to take a leadership role in circular polymer futures,” said Rachel Meidl, a fellow in energy and environment at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston and a former top official with the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “We are the largest chemical-producing state—we are known as the energy capital of the world and a global leader in manufacturing petrochemicals.”

Meidl is a booster for advanced recycling, having served as director of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council, an industry lobbying group. The idea, she said, “is to keep materials in use and at economic value for as long as possible” and “to use waste as a resource.”

Questioning the Economics of a $100 Million Plant 

When the city and its industrial partners signed an agreement for their recycling collaboration, each partner stressed what it was bringing to the effort. 

One of the key pieces was a $100 million Cyclyx plant that would harness new technology to analyze incoming plastics based on their chemical composition and then sort them according to the needs of various chemical recyclers. 

“We started to recognize that for this budding chemical [recycling] industry to blossom, you really needed to focus in on custom recipes or custom compounding’’ to chemically recycle various kinds of plastics, Joe Vaillancourt, the chief executive officer of Cyclyx, said in an interview. “So right now we have somewhere around 3,500 sources’’ of plastic “that all have been chemically fingerprinted.”

LyondellBasell and ExxonMobil were to finance the local Cyclyx operation, contingent upon a final investment decision in early 2023 and start-up in 2024, according to a press release issued by the three companies. But that timeline has slipped, Cyclyx has acknowledged, and the new facility could be at least a year or two away.

Vaillancourt said that Cyclyx had selected a site, but he declined to reveal its location, saying that the companies had not yet come to terms on the funding. “The engineering is nearing completion,” he said, but the “full financing decision is still open.” 

“We are progressing through all of the stages,” he added, and “I would argue we’re favorably inclined on the project. And we should have some public announcements here in the very near term.’’

For critics, however, the delay is a signal that the economics of the project—and ExxonMobil’s plan to expand chemical recycling of plastics at other petrochemical plants—are dubious.

“It is still far cheaper to make new plastic out of virgin fossil fuels,” said Dell, who tracks the economics of plastic recycling. “And ExxonMobil can’t make enough profit from trucking, sorting, grinding and co-processing plastic waste in their refineries to make plastic and fuel products.” 

“ExxonMobil has plenty of money, but they don’t fund money losers,” she added.

The ExxonMobil Baytown Complex near homes in Baytown, Texas.
The ExxonMobil Baytown Complex near homes in Baytown, Texas. (James Bruggers / Inside Climate News)

ExxonMobil declined to comment on the status and potential funding of the so-called Cyclyx Circularity Center but said the facility would “accelerate advanced recycling at Baytown and along the Gulf Coast.”

Meanwhile, the company has deepened its commitment to fossil fuels, spending $59.5 billion last month to acquire Pioneer Natural Resources, a major oil and gas producer in Texas’ Permian Basin. It is the company’s largest acquisition since it bought Mobil in 1999.

LyondellBasell declined to comment for the article. Last week, it announced that it was acquiring a 25 percent stake in Cyclyx, joining ExxonMobil and Agilyx, a plastics recycling company, as investors in the venture. As a partner in the Houston recycling coalition, LyondellBasell has also said that it is weighing the possibility of building a chemical recycling facility at a refinery it owns on the Houston Ship Channel that is due to close by 2025. 

Struggling to Extract Information

Environmental advocates in Houston say they have had a hard time learning more about the collaborators’ plans to turn the city into a major hub of chemical recycling of plastics. 

For example, it took the environmental group Air Alliance Houston, working with the national advocacy group Beyond Plastics, a year to obtain a copy of the recycling coalition’s memorandum of understanding, said Jennifer Hadayia, executive director of the alliance. 

That document calls for strict confidentiality on the very existence of the memorandum itself and limits on what can be made public about the partners’ discussions without obtaining written agreement from all of them.

Efforts by environmental advocates to get more information from the city or partners like ExxonMobil about where the collected plastic waste is going and whether and how it is being recycled have also met with resistance, Hadayia said.

Air Alliance Houston has additionally sought unsuccessfully to obtain information on emissions associated with ExxonMobil’s new plastics recycling facility in Baytown. From what Hadayia has been able to determine, the facility has been built onto the company’s refinery there, with plastic waste used as an alternative feedstock for petrochemical products. 

“It’s a plug-in,” so emissions can be covered by the company’s existing permits, she said.

A regional EPA spokesman said the federal agency was not tracking air permits for the recycling facility. A spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates air quality, said the state agency could not find a “stand-alone” permit for the operation.

ExxonMobil said it had complied with all applicable laws and regulations.

While frustrating, the shortage of specifics about the facility is also telling for critics. “I’ve been wondering,” Hadayia said of the coalition partners, “why are they not celebrating this openly, every day, if it’s something they are really proud of? And why are they not being transparent about what it is?”

While private companies often withhold details about their operations for competitive reasons, Hadayia argues that the city’s involvement increases the need for transparency. Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, has staked much of his reputation on the city’s environmental sustainability initiatives and its responses to climate change, she notes, and is chair emeritus of a group of more than 750 mayors who have pledged to meet the emissions goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord on a local level.

Hadayia contends that the companies participating in the Houston collaboration “sold the city a bill of goods” on how chemical recycling would solve its plastic recycling problem. In reality, she argues, it will do nothing to reduce plastic production and will ultimately wreak “collateral damage,” contributing to air pollution in a city that already fails to meet clean air standards.

The mayor’s office declined to comment for this article.

On Aug. 10, Inside Climate News filed a request with the city under the Texas Public Information Act for copies of records related to the collaboration’s activities and deliberations. City officials said they have sent their response to the state attorney general’s office to secure its legal opinion on what they can release.

The Neighborhood Reaction

As an oil, gas and petrochemical powerhouse, the Houston area has dozens of polluting facilities in close proximity to low-income neighborhoods, including many people of color, presenting environmentalists and local officials with an array of environmental justice issues. Lining both sides of the Houston Ship Channel for 50 miles are refineries, chemical, cement and rubber plants, and recycling operations, in many cases with low-income Black and Latino residents as neighbors.

Environmental advocates gearing up to fight chemical recycling are finding it hard to counter a deeply embedded narrative there that because recycling is a good thing, “advanced” recycling must be even better.

Shiv Srivastava, an organizer and policy researcher with the nonprofit environmental justice group Fenceline Watch, said that many people who live near refineries and chemical plants are initially supportive of chemical recycling of plastics, or at least open to it, if it is described as advanced recycling.

“That’s a huge concern,” he said, “because this is something that initially will sound great but is actually just expanding the infrastructure that we’re already overburdened with.”

Yvette Arellano, Fenceline Watch’s founder and director, said the group was worried about the Houston Recycling Collaboration’s chemical component, including toxic emissions and the implications for community risk and emergency response planning.

Yvette Arellano and Shiv Srivastava with the Houston-based environmental justice group Fenceline Watch, near the LyondellBasell Houston Refinery.
Yvette Arellano and Shiv Srivastava with the Houston-based environmental justice group Fenceline Watch, near the LyondellBasell Houston Refinery. (James Bruggers / Inside Climate News)

The sheer scale of the potential effort stirs unease, Arellano added: “Is Houston going to become a hub to basically manage our nation’s plastic crisis? And how much of it will it take in?”

A 2019 report on Houston’s potential role as a “low-carbon energy capital,” researched by students and faculty at the University of Houston and co-published with the Center for Houston’s Future, a local think tank, predicted that the metropolitan area could support as many as 100 chemical recycling facilities by 2030 and 300 by 2050, creating 45,000 jobs.

“The fact that we already manufacture plastics here, along with the region’s low energy prices and the increasing availability of price-competitive renewable electricity, place Houston in a unique position to lead the circular plastics economy,” the report concluded.

But skeptics question whether such a future would benefit all of Houston, where poorer communities are already saddled with disproportionate pollution and public health problems.

Communities along the ship channel face far higher cancer risks than in neighboring locales in West Houston because of their historic exposure to toxic chemicals and air pollution, noted Dominic Boyer, an anthropologist at Rice University who studies the intersection of energy, climate, politics and society.

Even if the chemical recycling sector addressed the city’s plastic waste problem and created jobs, providing “a more secure off-ramp” from an economic reliance on oil, Boyer said, it could keep Houston on an unsustainable path. 

Beyond the danger to people who live near chemical plants, “circular” recycling could worsen the global health impacts of the plastics glut, he warned. The world is only beginning to confront the ubiquity of the toxic chemicals in plastics, which break down into the microscopic particles increasingly found in human bodies and in habitats worldwide, he said.

“So the idea of advanced recycling is something that sort of greenlights the way to continue pumping oil to produce petroplastics,” Boyer said. “When you look at it, doesn’t really make sense.’’

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James Bruggers covers the U.S. Southeast, part of Inside Climate News’ National Environment Reporting Network. He previously covered energy and the environment for Louisville’s Courier Journal, where...