How can we do more with less?

That question is not about reducing costs, it’s about how we can use less resources, while still maintaining the quality of life to which we are accustomed.  

Plastic products play a significant role in our daily lives -- both with the products we physically touch and utilize and those at work behind the scenes. Increasingly, these products are also playing an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our overall impacts on the environment. For example, plastic-based building materials, such as insulation and sealants, improve energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption in buildings, and plastic parts reduce vehicle weights, resulting in improved fuel economy and reduced emissions. Across industry sectors plastic innovations are reducing our impact on the environment.

In the past, how these products are managed after use has presented a challenge where innovations in technology and industry are now helping to provide a solution. Advanced recycling technologies utilize post-use plastics, which may otherwise be landfilled, as feedstock to create new products.  

On November 25, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill into law to ensure companies utilizing these technologies are appropriately regulated as manufacturers and not waste facilities in Pennsylvania.

"Addressing climate change is one of the most important issues that we face, and that is why my administration has made it a top priority to support comprehensive efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste, including the growing challenge of reducing plastic waste in landfills," Wolf said. "This measure offers an innovative way to manage hard-to-recycle plastics, which not only will reduce waste but also support an emerging recycling industry."

House Bill 1808, now Act 127, was introduced by Rep. Ryan Mackenzie (PA-134) to provide regulatory certainty for companies considering investments in Pennsylvania. The legislation also makes clear that these facilities are not taking in or handling municipal waste, and are fully compliant with all Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Environmental Protection Agency permitting requirements.

“Advanced recycling presents an emerging market in the United States, and we have seen these facilities successfully deployed at a commercial scale in other states over the last seven years,” Mackenzie said. “They are having a tremendous impact in their communities, reducing waste in the surrounding regions while demonstrating a business model that does more with less. I look forward to welcoming this industry to our state and seeing Pennsylvania’s economy and environment benefit.”

Successful recycling infrastructure already exists for plastics labeled Nos. 1-2, such as soda bottles and milk jugs. These advanced recycling operations are focused on plastics Nos. 3-7, such as candy wrappers, bags and packaging, which are a burden on municipal recycling programs because they cannot be recycled in the existing mechanical recycling infrastructure. Advanced recycling technologies will not replace existing recycling infrastructure but rather work in concert with it. 

"Over the last decade, recycling tonnages and public demand for services have increased significantly while recycling infrastructure, technology and waste management teams work to keep up,” said Holly Vogt, Beaver County Department of Waste Management’s director and sustainability/recycling coordinator. “Many haulers are collecting only select plastics curbside due to limited end users. These advanced recycling technologies have created a new end-use market for plastics that have previously been a challenge to recycle. We look forward to offering new services to our customers and partnering with companies to supplement our operations and reduce the footprint of waste by diverting valuable materials. This is an exciting opportunity to expand and enhance recycling both locally and beyond."  

While this technology may be new to Pennsylvania, across the country, private companies are already manufacturing post-use plastics at a commercial scale into a versatile mix of new chemicals, feedstocks, products and more environmentally friendly transportation fuels. For example, Shell Chemicals is using a liquid feedstock made from plastic waste, supplied by Nexus Fuels, in its chemical plant in Norco, LA to make a range of new products and Brightmark recently initiated a national site search for their next $1 billion advanced plastic recycling facility. In April, Brightmark narrowed its search and Pennsylvania is one of seven states still in the running. This facility is expected to manufacture 200,000 tons of waste plastics annually into new products. The regulatory certainty provided this legislation will provide companies an additional reason to consider an investment in Pennsylvania.

The process is basic chemistry. Plastics Nos. 3-7 are delivered for processing, any remaining contaminants are removed, and the plastics are heated, causing a change in chemical composition, and then cooled and condensed into feedstock for new petroleum-based products. This is not incineration as combustion does not occur because oxygen is absent from the closed loop process. 

“Plastics play a critical role in modern society and are too valuable to be thrown away or burned,” said Abby Foster, president of the Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council. “These technologies extend the product life cycle and are providing a free market solution to help address a global and domestic challenge of waste management. Pennsylvania is fortunate to have a strong and growing petrochemical and plastics market, and potentially now an advanced recycling market to make a truly circular economy for plastics here in the commonwealth.”  

According to the American Chemistry Council, converting just 25 percent of the recoverable post-use plastics in Pennsylvania could support 10 advanced recycling manufacturing facilities, resulting in $314 million in new economic output annually.


As many of us adjust to working from the couch, with daytime television in the background and a confused dog at our side, it’s business as usual or double-time for the majority of Pennsylvania’s manufacturers and their supply chains. 

Critical to our ability to contain COVID-19, flatten the curve and treat those with confirmed cases are the necessary tools, supplies and infrastructure for the healthcare professionals on the front lines to get the job done.  

Disinfectants and intensive care medical equipment, such as ventilators and respirators, personal protective equipment such as reusable masks and gloves, therapeutics and laboratory supplies are all created using, or supported by, chemical manufacturing and each of these products are currently being manufactured in Pennsylvania. 

For the rest of us practicing social distancing from the confines of our home, we still need clean running water, electricity, food and medications to stay safe and healthy -- and that means continued manufacturing operations. 

The products in your grocery store, the ingredients for your last Grubhub order and the package containing the last available roll of toilet paper on Amazon that was just delivered to your doorstep don’t originate from just one retailer or one manufacturer. A product’s journey from raw material to your home is supported by hundreds, sometimes thousands of different companies. 

Take disinfectant wipes as an example -- a combination of polyester, cotton, cellulose from wood pulp, rayon fibers and sometimes polypropylene and polyethylene to reinforce the strength of the sheet. Each of those is a separate raw material manufacturer. To provide the cleaning and disinfectant power, wipes will typically contain potassium hydroxide, sodium hypochlorite, ammonium chloride and other substances. Again, a variety of chemical manufacturers support the production of those chemicals.  

That is just a description for the product. You also need packaging -- polyethylene or a pulp papermill to make the package, ink for labeling, adhesives to seal it, pallets to load and unload the product onto a truck, auto part manufacturers to ensure trucks can keep moving product and we haven’t even begun to dive into the manufacturers that make the parts and service the machines used by other manufacturers that are now working overtime to fulfill demand and will most certainly need replacements and repairs.

You can see how if the wrong jenga piece is pulled, it all comes crashing down, leaving food to rot at the manufacturer or cleaning supplies stuck in one part of the chain with no way to move forward. 

On March 19, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency Office developed a Memorandum on the Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response to serve as a template for states on what industry sectors are essential and which should halt operations. This was a well thought out guideline that took into consideration the intricate nature of manufacturing and the importance of the supply chains that support each life-essential product. 

We appreciate that on March 20, Gov. Wolf followed the guidance of the Department of Homeland Security and updated the previous guidance issued by his administration to allow for the continued operation of those companies. 

While the general public might not understand that an industry subsector of adhesives is critical to the healthcare community to provide medical tapes and bonding, medical wearables, blood glucose monitoring strips and adhesive closures, the Department of Homeland Security ensured it was included in their comprehensive view of the complicated matrix of manufacturing necessary to sustain life. 

Chemicals are the building blocks, and chemistry is the starting point, for almost every product we need to survive. Pennsylvania ranks eighth nationally in manufacturing with chemicals as the top sector. As a significant exporter to our neighboring states and across the country, the decisions we make and our ability to continue production of life-essential products will play a significant role in how quickly we as a country are able to flatten the curve.  

Manufacturers across the state, acutely aware of their role in supporting the supply chain for critical products and services to fight COVID-19 have reduced operations to only the essential staff necessary to complete safe operations. From the assembly line making valves for the machines producing N95 masks to the process operator ensuring plant efficiency and monitoring quality, they are working hard for all of us.

As you pace the confines of your house today, consider all of the products you still have access to that are keeping you healthy and safe and the tools medical professionals are relying on to fight this virus and help those in need. Consider the manufacturer, the manufacturer’s supplier, their supplier and the men and women that continue to go to work for us -- and if you know one, say thank you.  


DHS CISA Memo and Guidelines (issued 3/19)

PA Gov. Wolf Order (issued 3/19)

PA Gov. Wolf Guidance on Life-essential Business Sectors (updated 3/20)

DCED Order / Business FAQs (issued 3/20)

DCED Waiver Exemption Application


It doesn’t matter if you’re team dark meat or team light meat, we can all agree that disposable dinnerware is a blessing for your Thanksgiving host. 

Cooking is fun. Cleanup is not. 

Fear not, my environmentally conscious host. Innovations brought to you by the chemical industry can take away the guilt of single-use place settings.  

Across the country, companies such as Brightmark Energy, Vadxx and Agilyx are converting those hard-to-recycle plastics into a versatile mix of new chemicals, feedstocks, products and even more environmentally friendly transportation fuels. 

Rigid plastics, including bottles, are collected and recycled with success, but plastics such as polystyrene clamshell food containers, candy wrappers and plastic bags historically have been more of a challenge to recycle. 

Enter the chemical industry, bringing a solution to the table. 

The process is basic chemistry. The plastics are delivered for processing, contaminants are removed, and the plastics are heated, causing a change in chemical composition, and then cooled and condensed into fuels or feedstock for new petroleum-based products, such as plastic bags, bottles and containers. 

Because the molecules do not degrade in this process, it can be repeated indefinitely, creating a completely circular life cycle for a product.   

Combustion does not occur because oxygen is absent from this process. As a result, these facilities produce low or no emissions with a small environmental footprint.

The technologies for advanced chemical recycling and plastics-to-fuel have been proven and available for more than a decade, but through advancements and shifts in the market they did not become economically viable until the last three to five years. 

The global middle class is growing. Access to modern conveniences made possible by plastics is improving living standards, hygiene, nutrition and the quality of life for billions of people, but the challenge of waste management is also growing. 

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste is an industry-led group working to educate, innovate and develop waste management infrastructure and drive cleanup efforts to keep plastic waste in the right place.

And innovations such as advanced chemical recycling and plastics-to-fuel are being driven by these industry leaders conscious of the impacts of pollution when waste is not managed. 

Plastics are integral to our life, and certainly a challenge of consumerism is waste. 

Fortunately, thanks to chemistry, we do not have to sacrifice the tools and products of modern society or revert to a reduced quality of life. 

Plastics made it possible for those greens in your festive cranberry walnut salad to stay fresh from farm to table, and the plastic packaging in your overnighted Amazon delivery kept those pumpkin-scented candles in one piece. 

Our holiday season festivities come full circle. That plane, train or automobile that transports you to loved ones near and far just might be fueled by the plates and forks from your Thanksgiving meal last year. 

 So, as you gather around the table set with festive disposable dinnerware, give thanks for another innovation toward a more sustainable future, brought to you by the chemical industry. 

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