From Regulation to Recycling, Northeast Ohio Is Tackling the Plastic Pollution Problem

Across the globe, environmentalists, lobbyists and lawmakers are making efforts to reduce plastic waste — but are they enough? Northeast Ohio has taken matters into its own hands to combat its plastic pollution problem, and has now been named the “Sustainable Polymers Tech Hub” for the US. Cover graphic by Alyssa Jacoby for Midstory.

Plastic waste is everywhere. 

From the bottle it’s sold in to the wrapper surrounding it, almost every product in stores has a plastic component, leading to over 350 million tons of plastic waste generated globally each year.

In response to the ongoing plastic dilemma, Northeast Ohio has taken matters into its own hands, adopting local strategies to address plastic pollution at every stage, from usage to disposal.

In 2019, Cuyahoga County proposed a plastic bag ban, attempting to eliminate disposable bags from the community; Ohio has also developed two new chemical recycling facilities that use innovative technologies to reduce plastic waste.

These efforts have been recognized by Biden’s administration, which named Akron as “the Sustainable Polymers Tech Hub” in October 2023.

“Plastics are very important and vital to our economy and to our environment,” Jeremy DeBenedictis, president of Alterra Energy and Ohio native, said. “Plastic has a lower greenhouse gas footprint than the alternative [packaging] materials. It’s also a deflationary material, because plastic is so cheap to produce.”

Being so cheap to produce, however, makes plastic both a blessing and a curse. As it is cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle, this leaves discarded plastic with no value — the crux of the plastic problem.

Plastics are made through processes that require high heat and pressure, resulting in plastic types of varying durability and moldability. Fossil fuels such as crude oil, natural gas, and coal are used in the production of nearly all plastics, meaning the constant new production of plastics compounds the global warming crisis.

Moreover, copious amounts of discarded plastic cause disposal problems. According to a study by the Rochester Institute of Technology, every year 5.5 million pounds of plastic pollute Lake Erie and approximately 80% of the litter found on the shorelines of the Great Lakes is plastic. Microplastic particles can be consumed by wildlife and are absorbed in drinking water, resulting in disruptions of ecosystems and negative long-term health conditions.

Graphic by Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

In the United States, nearly two-thirds of plastics end up in landfills — an unsustainable destination that also risks the contamination of water supplies, especially if improperly managed or sealed.

Single-use plastics, such as grocery bags, are among the lowest in discard value. Each year, 99% of plastic bags end up in landfills or become litter. Due to their chemical makeup, a single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

Recycling is a reactionary attempt to combat the landfill and plastic pollution problem, and has been a popular method in the United States since the 1980s. Mechanical recycling has been the default approach, in which plastics are sorted, cleaned, shredded, melted down and reprocessed into granules. These granules are then re-molded, producing a new plastic product. 

According to the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District, plastics still end up in the environment or in landfills due to being unrecyclable. In Cuyahoga County recycling facilities, plastic bags cannot be recycled because they get tangled in the sorting machines. Durable plastics such as toys, chairs and cosmetics also cannot be recycled. 

The American Society for Testing and Materials created an International Resin Identification Coding System to identify the type of plastic resin from which products are made. In the United States, only numbers 1 and 2, bottles or jugs, are consistently recycled because they are economically viable and relatively easy to recycle.

Graphic by Alyssa Jacoby for Midstory.

Even when successful, mechanical recycling prohibits plastics from being recycled indefinitely due to the resulting reduction of quality.

Ohio is now paving the way for a new method of recycling called chemical recycling. Also known as advanced recycling, this technology is intended to be complementary to mechanical recycling, but it could be a game-changer because it can remake “hard-to-recycle” plastics and reduce plastics in landfills. It could also decrease the demand for fossil fuels because of the high-quality raw materials produced.

The Alterra facility in Akron, Ohio, is one example of a pioneering chemical recycling plant. The facility was commissioned in 2020 and is a 24/7 continuously operating plant that turns consumers’ plastic waste (that would normally be dumped at a landfill site) into petrochemical products.

But how exactly does it work?

“We recycle on a molecular level,” DeBenedictis said.

According to DeBenedictis, the process involves breaking down plastic materials into a liquid. The liquid is then vaporized to enable a phase separation between the valuable plastic molecules and the impurities, like fillers and dyes, and is then condensed back to pure hydrocarbon liquid. 

This creates a circular plastic economy, in which plastics can be recycled without losing their tensile strength and viscosity.

“Our core is plastic circularity and seeing how it can go back into making new plastics and other products,” DeBenedictis said. “About 75% of what comes in ends up being a sellable liquid product … not 100% goes into plastics, some go into other chemicals and waxes and lubes and other products.”

Environment and economy are both tenets of Alterra’s mission. Once the hydrocarbon liquid has been created, Alterra sells its end product (mostly to petrochemical companies or refiners such as Nesta). Most importantly, this kicks off a chain of economic value.

DeBenedictis said that because Alterra sells a product, that also means they can afford to pay for the material that comes to their plant. And because they pay for the material, someone else in the supply chain can now collect, aggregate, sort and prepare it.

“The solution we really provide is creating value for discarded plastics,” DeBenedictis said. “We’re incentivizing people to get that out of the landfill and bring it back into the economy. And then our downstream product is replacing new fossil material.”

Graphic by Alyssa Jacoby for Midstory.

While some environmentalists have raised concerns about the environmental effects of the process — due to the extent of greenhouse gas emissions — states across the country are seeing the technology as beneficial to the polymer industry. In the Midwest, Missouri, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio have all passed legislation in favor of chemical recycling. 

Ohio and Texas currently have the most fully-operational chemical recycling facilities within their borders compared to any other states in the United States, most of which have none. In Ohio, these two facilities are located in Akron and Ironton; a further two facilities are currently in the project proposal stage, and these are located in Hebron and Youngstown.

Akron’s recent designation as the “Sustainable Polymers Tech Hub” for the United States now makes the city eligible for large sums of funding and federal support in the circular plastics industry.

The designation comes in part due to the history of the region: With Akron being the Rubber Capital of the World, the polymer industry was encouraged to grow in operations and research. According to DeBenedictis, investments were also made in the University of Akron’s polymer science and engineering division.

These research projects, along with other corporate and community efforts in the sustainable plastics sphere, are being encouraged to develop through government programs offering as much as $50-$75 million across the tech hubs. 

For DeBenedictis, this could mean a prospective world-class plastic circularity lab that could change the industry.

“[In new facilities,] we could start really characterizing discarded plastics,” DeBenedictis said. “Because it’s an infant industry, that [information] exists, but it’s all in pockets. It’s not at the same location.”

The tech hub development is one step in the growth that the circular plastics industry continues to experience. Alterra’s own growth is also representative of the industry’s direction. In 2021, the company had 10 employees. Three years later, they now have 46 — and counting.

As an example of America’s potential sustainable polymer future, Alterra now looks toward Europe, who are the global leaders in chemical recycling plants, regulation and policy support.

“We’re getting there,” DeBenedictis said. “It’s kind of exciting because you’re seeing all these things coalesce at the same time.”

The Alterra facility. Image courtesy of Angela Sot at Alterra Energy.

For growth to continue, collaboration is needed not only in Ohio, but across the United States.

“We really do root for the other plastic circularity companies to come up to speed, for their plants to work just as efficient[ly] — and every day — like we have here in Akron, Ohio, because I think it’ll bring more validity to the entire market,” DeBenedictis said.

A lot of the industry’s collaboration is spearheaded by the American Chemistry Council, who brings together its members and hosts conferences to support the pursuit of a circular economy. 

“We cannot work on our silos, we have to work across the entire value chain,” DeBenedictis said. “We have to talk to the people who are aggregating and sorting the discarded plastics, and also our customers who would be the [petrochemical companies] and refiners. And then also having an ear open for the brand owners who are looking to promote plastic circularity in their products.”

Promoting plastic circularity is important for brand owners in the consumer sphere, as it hits on recent trends of growing environmental conscience among customers. 

“There’s a demand by the consumer to have an environmentally friendly packaging material, and so we need more recycled content in this plastic packaging that they’re purchasing from the stores,” DeBenedictis said.

Stores are key figures in the sustainable plastics cause, and Northeast Ohio continues to lead the way. For instance, Cuyahoga County’s “Disposable Bag Ban” prohibits businesses from distributing plastic bags at the checkout and became effective in January 2020.

In tandem with the ban, the Cuyahoga County Department of Sustainability launched the “Bring Your Own Bag” educational program to promote reusable bag usage. The program saw over 50,000 reusable bags distributed to members of the community to provide environmentally viable alternatives. 

Katharyne Starinsky, the program’s director, said that Cuyahoga County targeted disposable single-use plastic bags because eliminating plastic bags is a small way to start a sustainable lifestyle.

“When businesses are leaders in these sorts of things, customers fall into line,” Starinsky said.

The Department of Sustainability based its initiative on a study released by the Ohio Sea Grant & Stone Laboratory on the efficiency of using reusable bags, which concluded that there is an overall consensus supporting the implementation of policies and initiatives that minimize plastic pollution. It also concluded that one of the biggest challenges to such policies is that people often forget to bring their reusable bags. 

Customers, however, are more likely to participate in sustainable practices if they are in an environment that promotes them: In addition to the program, Cuyahoga County developed the Sustainable Stores Program in March 2023 to provide assistance for local businesses to be active drivers in reducing plastic bags within their stores. 

The Sustainable Stores Grant was awarded to 31 selected retailers that are currently developing methods to eliminate plastic bag use, such as expanding the checkout counter space for packing items into reusable bags, creative signage or providing paper bag alternatives for a small fee. 

“I would like to see as many businesses as possible comply on their own — voluntarily — with the expectation that we don’t have plastic bags in our county,” said Starinsky.

Leaders in Ohio are optimistic, and continue to look toward a future in which plastic pollution is drastically decreased — an ambitious goal has even been set for 100% of plastic packaging being recycled, recovered or reused by 2040

“If you look out 50 years, I think you do have a world where you’re recycling a good 60-80%,” DeBenedictis said. “Maybe it’s a world where you’re not using fossil material for any of your plastics, because you’re using biomaterials where it makes sense … [and using material] coming from plastic circularity and from the facilities that we have. And then traditional recycling has increased and gotten even smarter with AI and robotics for picking the materials out that they need. And all those things together are working to put all that material back into the economy.”

Jeremy DeBenedictis. Image courtesy of Angela Sot at Alterra Energy.

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