Sierra Club Opposes IRG Plastic Plant

International Recycling Group (IRG) plans to build a plant for processing waste plastic on a 25-acre “Opportunity Zone” site between 10th street and East Lake Road.  The site was owned by International Paper (IP).  The plant will have a sorting facility that IRG calls “recycling” waste plastic products.

Lake Erie Group, PA Sierra Club Chapter, opposes building the plant. The Lake Erie Group, Pennsylvania Sierra Club Chapter, has about 800 members in Northwestern Pennsylvania.  Many live in the neighborhood of the IP site or on the east side of the City of Erie.

Lake Erie Group’s position: the benefits that IRG claims would accrue to the community and the environment if its plant were built, even if accurate, are heavily outweighed by the foreseeable long-term human health costs and environmental damage of operating the proposed plant.  Therefore, Lake Erie Group, PA Sierra Club Chapter, opposes building the plant.

The Sierra Club’s position on the continued extraction of fossil fuels is clear.  Plastics are produced from feedstocks refined from the production of oil and gas:

“There are no ‘clean’ fossil fuels. The Sierra Club is committed to eliminating the use of fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas and oil, as soon as possible. We must replace all fossil fuels with clean renewable energy, efficiency and conservation.”

The Sierra Club also has clear positions on 1) the build-out of the plastics industry in Western Pennsylvania, 2) on the banning of single-use plastics (and corporate efforts to undermine the public’s right to do so—unfortunately successful in Pennsylvania), and 3) the virtually complete failure of the plastics recycling industry. (See references below).

Basically, plastics recycling does not exist in any meaningful form. The very limited amount of plastics actually being processed for “recycling” are in fact being downcycled—re-processing plastic degrades the material and drastically limits the number of times it can be re-processed. The ultimate fate of all the plastics introduced into the environment every day are, in order of prevalence:

1) Pollution, most evident in waterways, but equally present on land, and even in the air, and in virtually all our bodies.

2) Landfill.

3) Burning, primarily for energy production (but also including coke substitution), spewing climate-changing carbon pollution into our waters and atmosphere, notwithstanding even modern emission control technology.

4) A tiny portion of the vast volumes of plastics produced every day are downcycled into other plastics, which cannot be recycled again, meaning that they ultimately end up as either Pollution (directly and through burning) or in Landfills. Fossil-fuel-based plastics are simply NOT SUSTAINABLE materials. 

The International Recycling Group (IRG) is proposed to truck 250,000 tons of plastic garbage into Erie annually. The materials would be sorted and then transported off-site to be used as fuel. NO RECYCLING is involved. Based on the well-considered positions of the Sierra Club nationally and in Pennsylvania, the Lake Erie Group cannot support the IRG proposal. Furthermore, any thorough consideration of the IRG proposal, as outlined in public statements, on its website, local media and social media, raises dozens of unanswered questions, and leads a reasonable person to wonder how such an enterprise can possibly succeed, let alone accomplish anything positive in the way of addressing the enormous issue of plastic pollution. A list of these questions appears in the the Erie Reader:

An article in GoErie refers to the questionnaire, but neglects to try to get answers to the questions, instead providing Mr. Hecht with another opportunity to greenwash his proposal, describing himself as a “dedicated environmentalist”:

The Sierra Club Lake Erie Group understands that the plastics industry plays an important role in the economy of the Erie region. But we also understand that plastic pollution has already achieved a level frequently described as environmental disaster. Plastic pollution has become a moral issue—the damage to the environment is enormous and increasing daily, and the worst of its impacts are felt most intensely by the world’s poorest populations. The continued production of single-use plastics afflicts all of us, and the fact that it is a source of economic activity is not sufficient reason to permit the on-going infusion of plastic into the environment on every level.

      We strongly urge the plastics industry, and its support network, including PennState Behrend and its  School of Engineering, which has the largest academic plastics lab in the United States, to start to address this crisis from a moral perspective, rather than continuing to embrace a coldly technological approach to materials science, free of concerns about the crisis caused by their products. The alternative is for the plastics industry to continue to emulate the international armaments industry, which has successfully convinced many of the world’s governments that its weapons make us safe, when it is quite clear that the arms trade drives armed conflict. 

      We strongly urge that the City of Erie, and the other municipalities in northwestern Pennsylvania, take a hard look at their recycling programs, and stop supporting the fiction that plastics are recyclable. A well-conceived, carefully managed recycling program is important—indeed, it is essential for a sustainable future—but a recycling program that pretends to recycle plastic and rejects recycling glass (or paper, or other immanently-recyclable materials) is not fundamentally sound. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is a hierarchy of options—recycle is the last resort, and certainly not a solution to the plague of plastics currently engulfing the planet.

 Sierra Club Zero Waste Policy

Sierra Club Official Campaign to Stop Corporate Green-Washing on Plastic, working with a coalition of organizations including Greenpeace, Walden Asset Management, As You Sow, and The Last Beach Cleanup:

Every minute the equivalent of an entire garbage truck of plastic gets dumped into our oceans. In the United States, stores distribute 100 billion single-use plastic bags per year, many of which end up in our waterways.

Other Sierra Club Official Campaigns dealing with plastics:

•Keep Plastic Bottle Trash Out Of Our National Parks!

Plastic bottles are one of the largest sources of litter in our national parks, yet the Trump admin ended a program successful in cutting down waste. Speak up to let parks ban single-use plastic water bottles! 

•Pledge to Say No to Plastic Water Bottles.

Did you know that nearly a million single-use plastic water bottles are sold around the world EVERY minute? Take the pledge to put an end to single-use plastic water bottles today & ask friends to do the same! 

•Tell Albertsons & Safeway to Get Rid Of Plastic Bags!

Help keep billions of plastic bags out of our oceans by demanding grocery stores get rid of single-use plastics!

Sierra Club opposes the plastics industry buildout in Western Pennsylvania:

PITTSBURGH, PA -- Today at the city’s Climate Action Summit, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto came out in opposition to the continued buildout of polluting plastic and petrochemical facilities in Western Pennsylvania. He stated, “I oppose any additional petrochemical companies coming to Western Pennsylvania,” going further to say, “we don’t have to become the petrochemical/plastics center of the United States.” PublicSource reports he will be submitting a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf regarding how “the expansion of this industry is an impediment to the region’s growth.”

Western Pennsylvania is increasingly being targeted by industry for gas and petrochemical development. Earlier this month, it was announced that Exxon is currently looking to build a second cracker plant in Beaver County.

In response, Eva Resnick-Day, Pittsburgh Community Organizer with the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, said: "It's refreshing and vital to see our Mayor take a stand against the disastrous petrochemical buildout proposed in our region, especially as Exxon has been scouting for a second cracker in Beaver County.

   "Mayor Peduto's statement acknowledges that tackling the climate crisis and improving our air and water quality are incompatible with an industrial buildout of plastics in our region -- but we have to follow words with action. We hope the Mayor works with his fellow municipal leaders and allies to herald in a new vision and new investments for the region to achieve what we really need: clean air, family-sustaining jobs that don’t put workers and families at risk, and a 100% clean energy economy for all."

Kelsey Salerno, Western Pennsylvania Community Organizer with the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, said: "The legacy of our region is one of industry, from steel to coal to glass production. Workers in Western Pennsylvania have never been afraid to get their hands dirty, but why repeat history of dirty, polluting industries when our region can become a hub for windmill, solar panel, and sustainable construction material development? Workers in Beaver and beyond deserve jobs that keep them and fellow community members healthy, both physically and financially."

The cover story in Sierra magazine’s July 2019 issue, The US Recycling System is Garbage: