Exxon’s new ‘advanced recycling’ plant raises environmental concerns

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Advocates warn plants like the latest addition to the Texas complex generate hazardous pollutants and provide cover for oil giants to produce new plastic products

Exxon plant at Baytown, Texas

ExxonMobil just launched one of the largest chemical recycling plants in North America – but environmental advocates say the technology is a dangerous distraction from the need to reduce plastic production.

On the surface, the latest addition to ExxonMobil’s giant petrochemical refinery complex in Baytown, Texas, sounds like it could be a good thing: An “advanced recycling” facility capable of breaking down 36,000 metric tons of hard-to-recycle plastic each year. But plastic waste advocates warn that plants like it do little actual recycling, and instead generate hazardous pollutants while providing cover for oil giants to keep producing millions of tons of new plastic products each year.

The facility, which began large-scale operations in December of last year, is one of the largest chemical recycling plants in North America. Chemical recycling works by breaking down plastic polymers into small molecules in order to make new plastics, synthetic fuels and other products. Companies like ExxonMobil have rebranded the technology as “advanced recycling” and are now touting it as the latest hi-tech fix to address the plastic crisis, as traditional, mechanical recycling has failed to slow the tide of plastic piling up in landfills and the ocean.

ExxonMobil’s Baytown complex – which includes the third largest oil refinery in the US and a plant that manufactures 2.3m metric tons of plastic a year – is a major contributor to regional air and water pollution. It also has a long history of emitting chemicals above its permit limits, including the carcinogenic compound benzene. In recent years, ExxonMobil’s Baytown complex has been the site of fires and explosions that have injured workers and triggered shelter-in-place orders for nearby residents.

“Exxon has a terrible track record of polluting the Baytown community,” Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas, told the Guardian. “This false ‘chemical recycling’ will only produce more toxic misery for Baytown.”


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