Shared from the 10/21/2020 Houston Chronicle eEdition

EPA chief calls plastic waste a ‘top priority’

Susan Walsh / Associated Press

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler wants “to solve the current growing marine litter problem.”

WASHINGTON — The growing amount of plastic waste clogging the world’s oceans is drawing the attention of the Trump administration, with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler calling the problem a “top priority.”

Wheeler on Monday outlined the administration’s strategy for combating the problem, focusing on expanding and improving recycling capacity as well as maritime cleanup efforts.

“Internationally, up to 28 billion pounds of waste makes it into our oceans every year, harming marine life and coastal economies,” he said, during an event in Florida. “Working together with our global partners, we aim to solve the current growing marine litter problem in our shared oceans.”

The issue has been growing attention in recent years, as the waste management authorities worldwide struggle to handle the huge volumes of plastic from consumer packaging, which has proven difficult to recycle and in developing countries commonly is left on the side of the road to wash into rivers and oceans.

In the United States, less than 10 percent of plastic waste gets recycled, according to the EPA.

Amid international calls for action, the Trump administration has said it will work with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a group funded by the petrochemical industry to try to improve recycling rates. Also, Trump has proposed giving the EPA $7 million to address marine plastic waste. The Department of Energy is hosting a plastic innovation challenge, to encourage companies to develop solutions.

“Through our National Laboratories, our universities and American industry,” said Deputy Energy Secretary Mark Menezes, “this program will develop new technologies to keep plastics from entering the ocean, new methods to deconstruct existing plastic waste and upcycle it, and new plastics specifically designed to be recycled.”

Petrochemical companies have invested tens of billions of dollars along the Gulf Coast to build and expand plants that make plastics, tapping into feedstocks from abundant and cheap natural gas from Texas shale play. International concerns about the growing volumes of plastic waste and efforts to ban single-use plastics, however, are posing threats to industry’s future, drawing comparisons to the threat posed to the oil and gas industry by climate change.

Companies such as LyondellBasell and Chevron Phillips Chemical, a joint venture of the oil major Chevron and Houston refiner Phillips 66, have launched initiatives to reduce plastic, including investing in advanced technologies known as chemical recycling that revert plastics to their chemical components, which can then be used to make new plastics.

Chevron Phillips recently said it has successfully used commercial-scale chemical recycling technology to produce polyethylene, a common form of plastic. It set new target for producing 1 billion pounds of so-called circular polyethylene (named for the potential to repeatedly recycle plastics into new materials) by 2030.

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