The Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) facility in Hartford, December 19, 2019. Photos by Cloe Poisson Cloe Poisson

Our recycling system is broken – especially when it comes to plastics. Right now, cities and towns are paying sky-high costs to dispose of recycled materials. Meanwhile, less than 9% of the more than nine billion tons of plastic produced over the past seven decades has been recycled.

Most plastics end up burned in incinerators, buried in landfills, or littered in our environment. And every year, we’re making, burning, and burying even more single-use plastic. In the process, we’re accelerating the climate crisis, choking communities with toxic pollution, and saddling cities and towns with expensive and unrecyclable waste.

Today, much of what we put into our recycling bins still ends up in one of Connecticut’s five incinerators – or in an out-of-state landfill. The problem is that consumer brands and packaging manufacturers keep churning out single-use packaging that can’t be recycled.

But all is not lost. If done right, laws and policy programs, like single-use plastics bans and producer responsibility for packaging, could reform our recycling systems and cut back on toxic and climate-damaging emissions. Requiring corporations to ensure their packaging is reusable or recyclable and free of toxics – and holding them accountable for their single-use waste – can make a big difference.

Unfortunately, the plastics, packaging, and fossil fuel industries are hijacking the legislative process and lobbying government officials to protect their own interests. As a result, Connecticut lawmakers are considering two bills this year that would worsen the plastic pollution crisis. What’s more, they would bring a new generation of plastics-burning facilities to Connecticut.

The first bill, SB 115, would create a producer responsibility for packaging program. Unfortunately, the bill, as written, won’t force consumer brands or the packaging industry to make any real changes to their pollute-first business model. Rather than requiring brands to reduce and improve their packaging, and pay for the costs of managing their waste, SB 115 would simply allow big packaging companies to set their own recycling goals with little oversight, accountability or enforcement.  

What’s worse, the plastics and fossil-fuel industries have worked to add a loophole to the bill for high-heat plastics incineration technologies, like so-called “advanced recycling.”

The second bill, SB 352, would make it easier to build these plastic-burning “advanced recycling” facilities in Connecticut by exempting them from laws and regulations that ordinarily apply to solid waste and recycling facilities.

The petrochemical industry has successfully persuaded 16 other states throughout the U.S. to pass similar laws that allow them to burn plastics with little to no state or local oversight. Massachusetts and Rhode Island, however, have repeatedly rejected attempts to pass these dangerous industry-backed laws.

“Advanced recycling” is just a sneaky way of saying burning plastic. It’s not recycling, as most of the plastic that goes into to the process ends up burned, rather than being recycled into new products. The industry propaganda around these technologies is helping to create a new plastic-to-fuel incineration industry at a time when we’re still fighting to close the old generation of dangerous waste burners like MIRA’s Hartford incinerator.

Burning plastic creates toxic emissions that harm the communities forced to live near these incinerators – many of them communities of color and low-income communities. This technology is also energy intensive and expensive. Plus, many so-called “advanced recycling” facilities throughout the world have ended in financial failure. We will never reach our state-mandated climate goals if we’re dependent on a risky and damaging cycle of making and burning single-use plastic packaging.

Fossil fuel companies use oil and gas to create new plastic packaging, so their only goal is to continue profiting off this pollution. Advanced recycling is their latest ploy to maintain the status quo, and it’s important we call it out.

Most concerning of all, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has stated publicly that it supports the development of these facilities in Connecticut. This is unacceptable. At a time when we need to be moving away from the toxic cycle of making and burning single-use plastics, our state environmental agency should not be endorsing a false solution that will put Connecticut communities at risk.

We cannot allow fossil fuel interests and plastics manufacturers to saddle Connecticut’s communities with toxic, unproven, and climate-damaging facilities that keep us hooked on burning plastics. It’s time for our leaders to see through the false solutions these companies are promoting. Contact your legislators and tell them that burning plastic is not a solution.

Kevin Budris is an attorney with Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste project.