OPINION: A more sustainable future for Pa. through recycling innovation

By John Thayer, Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing, NOVA Chemicals Corporation

Published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on December 29, 2020

The need for recycling innovation, especially for plastic materials, has never been greater. While plastic materials have great value and make our lives healthier and safer, we also know we must act urgently to solve the issue of plastic waste in the environment.

As a Pittsburgher and 30-year veteran of the plastics industry, recent actions by Pennsylvania legislators give me great hope that we can do both.

In case you missed it, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed, and Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law, House Bill 1808. This law provides a framework that will help reshape how Pennsylvanians use and reuse plastics while encouraging investment and growth in the recycling sector.

The bill represents an important step forward in advancing the circular economy — where plastic products are used, captured, recycled and reused over and over — and toward a more prosperous future for the Keystone State.

The law helps provide regulatory certainty needed to promote advanced recycling technologies and attract new recycling businesses to our state. In addition to supporting job creation and economic growth, it will also help to position Pennsylvania as a leader in further developing innovative new technologies that are already revolutionizing and modernizing our outdated recycling infrastructure.

These technologies can convert plastics back into their original chemical building blocks to produce new products, to capture the value of plastics and make sure they don’t end up in the environment, the landfill or incinerated.

Advanced recycling technologies have the potential to transform today’s approach to “reduce, reuse, recycle” by helping us achieve a more circular economy for plastics. And these technologies help us expand the types of plastics that we can recycle — such as plastic pouches, tubes and other food packaging. These plastics can become new food contact plastics again, as well as high value specialty waxes for roofing applications, candles and crayons, lubricants used in our car engines and other applications. With this new law, we could see more statewide investments in the technologies that help eliminate plastic waste.

According to research by the American Chemistry Council, $5.3 billion in modern recycling technologies have been announced in the last three years in the U.S. alone. The projects supported by these investments have the potential to divert more than 4 million metric tons of waste from landfills each year.

Additionally, converting just 25% of the recoverable post-use plastics in Pennsylvania could support 10 advanced recycling facilities in our state while generating $314 million in new annual economic output.

At NOVA Chemicals, we are studying this issue right now. This year, our scientists joined up with Enerkem, a world leader in waste-to-renewable-fuels and chemicals, to pursue this type of game-changing technology. It won’t happen overnight, but we are exploring new ways to take noncompostable, nonrecyclable municipal waste and turn it into ethylene, the key building block for new plastic material. Our goal is to make new plastic resins manufactured from recycled municipal waste.

With the support of this new law in Pennsylvania, I am convinced more companies will invest in new pathways of circularity to create jobs and build a green economic revival. I believe advanced recycling technologies have the potential to help transform the entire value chain and promote a more sustainable society.

John Thayer is the senior vice president, sales and marketing, for NOVA Chemicals (with offices in Moon). He is also the incoming chair of the American Chemistry Council Plastics Division.