Circular Recycling Comes to Central Pennsylvania

By Sandy Field, PhD, North Central Pennsylvania Group

In April 2022, residents of Point Township, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, learned that a company called Encina plans to build a $1.1 billion circular plastics recycling facility along the Susquehanna River in the township. At first glance, this seems like a great idea. After all, as a member of the North Central Pennsylvania  Sierra Club group and the Susquehanna Valley Chapter of the Climate Reality Project, I have been recycling plastic for many years, and am concerned about the impact of single-use plastic waste on the environment. These concerns have been exacerbated by recent  news that only about 5% of plastic waste is actually being recycled and most of it ends up in landfills or is incinerated. Clearly, we need a green solution to the plastics problem. Is circular recycling the answer? In order to address this question, a number of us from the local area went to the Encina open house in May to learn more about their proposal and see if this plant offers a solution we can support. Here’s what we learned.

The proposed plant

The open house was PACKED. We got there on time and barely got a parking spot and had to wait to get in. Clearly, there is a lot of local interest in this facility. Part of that interest stems from the imminent closing of a Merck pharmaceutical plant that will cost 300 good local jobs. Encina says many of the jobs needed for their plant will require similar expertise to those that are being lost and will offer an average salary of $75,000. This is good money in our rural area. The company says there will be construction jobs while they build the facility and then 300 full-time employees will be needed to run the plant. Some of the attendees at the open house were interested in how to apply for those jobs and others were interested in how to get contracts with the company for the building projects.
Another group of people, including our group, came to the open house because they were concerned about the impacts of the plant on the environment. Locals quoted in the paper after the event expressed concerns about local wells, drinking water, impacts on the river, flood risk, and air quality. Clean air and pure water are valued treasures of life in rural Pennsylvania.

Our group included a biochemist and a chemist, and we arrived with lots of questions. Encina had a number of representatives at the open house who were able to answer the technical questions that we had about the process.
Here are the basics of what they will be doing:

  • The plant will process 450,000 tons of post-consumer plastic, mostly numbers 3-7 that are harder to recycle.
  • The plastics will arrive daily by trucks from metropolitan areas of the Northeast.
  • The plastics will first be washed and sorted.
  • The plastics will then be vaporized in the presence of a proprietary catalyst, powered by a fossil gas pipeline, and cooled by water from the river (~2000 gallons per minute)
  • The vaporized plastics will be fractionated to distill the vapors into usable chemicals including benzene, toluene, xylene, and polypropylene (this is sometimes called BTX/P).
  • The chemicals will be stored on site and then transported to customers via rail lines that run along the river.
  • The water used for washing the plastics and cooling the process will be treated and returned to the river.

The company is touting the recycling process as a “circular” process that will sustainably take plastics out of the waste stream to make chemicals that can then be used in the production of new plastic products. They also say that the vaporization process is a low emissions process. However, there are a number of reasons to believe they are presenting a best-case scenario that does not address residents’ concerns about air and water pollution and health risks associated with the plant.

Waste stream

The vaporization process described by Encina is a completely untested technology, but other similar plastics recycling plants around the country have faced problems related to the significant amounts of waste generated from these processes due to the heterogeneity of post-consumer plastics that render a large proportion of the plastics unusable. This can be due to a number of factors, including the fact that post-consumer plastics are not of uniform type, they have labels or added contaminants such as colorings or softeners that were used in the process of making them, or they are contaminated with other products associated with their use (i.e., food waste, oils, detergents). Encina claims they will collect and sell any by-product contaminants, but no other company has been able to do that thus far and other plants of this type generate significant amounts of plastic and/or chemical waste that goes to landfills or to incinerators where it is burned, creating toxic pollution.

Air pollution

The company has not disclosed the type or amounts of emissions that will result from their plastics vaporization process. However, burning fossil gas to create the very high temperatures that will be needed for this process will create carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, including particulates, nitrous oxides, and sulfur dioxides, which are typically associated with fossil fuel combustion. Also, the gas pipeline poses a risk of methane leaks. Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Water pollution and flooding

There is also the impact on the Susquehanna River to consider. The river is an important source of drinking water for many who live in our area. The proposed site is in the 100-year floodplain along the banks of the river in an area that has flooded twice in the past 20 years that I have lived here. This creates a toxic hazard risk for local and downstream residents in terms of the fossil gas pipeline at the site and the stored chemicals and plastics at the site and on rail lines. For residents of the Susquehanna Valley, it is not a matter of if the river will flood but when. In addition, although Encina says they will treat the water that has been used to wash the plastics before returning it to the river, local residents have concerns about residual microplastics pollution in the wastewater and also about the increased temperature of that water. The Susquehanna River is shallow, the largest unnavigable river in the country, and plants with similar cooling processes, such as coal- or gas-fired power plants along the river, have been associated with fish kills in the area surrounding their outflows. This is of concern to locals who value the area’s rich fishing opportunities.

Health risks

In addition to health risks associated with air and water pollution from the plant, there are significant health risks associated with exposure to the chemicals that will be generated by this plant, as all of them are known to be toxic to humans and there is the possibility of air and/or water contamination at the site.
Is circular recycling a good thing?

Although we went into the open house with the hope that circular plastics recycling was something we could support for our area that would bring jobs and revenue and serve the greater good, it seems that the reality is not as “green” as we hoped. Between toxic air and water emissions, fossil gas use, and flood risk, this proposed “solution” appears to present too many environmental risks without evidence of true benefit in reducing plastic waste. It seems the best solution to the plastics waste problem will be to reduce the production and use of plastics in the first place.

This blog was included as part of the September 2022 Sylvanian newsletter. Please click here to check out more articles from this edition!