Tests Continue on the `Slow Cook' Method of Recycling Used Plastic but Some Environmentalists Say the Method Is Not Really Recycling

By Mark Trumbull, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 3, 1993 | Go to article overview

Tests Continue on the `Slow Cook' Method of Recycling Used Plastic but Some Environmentalists Say the Method Is Not Really Recycling


Mark Trumbull, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE plastics industry hails it as advanced recycling. To some environmentalists, it is not recycling at all.

In a small processing plant here in western Washington, William Conrad is transforming plastics into three basic components: petroleum, carbon black, and gas. The process is called pyrolysis, the use of heat (1,300 degrees) to cause chemical decomposition. There is no need to clean or sort the plastic - any mix will do.

"I could take your clothes and run it through the system" and come out with the "same three things," says Mr. Conrad, president of Conrad Industries Inc. "Pyrolysis is an old, old art."

Dismayed at the dumping of valuable materials, Conrad has been recycling scrap tires here with this method since 1986. His push into plastics comes as Oregon moves ahead with a law requiring plastics to be recycled, reused, or made with recycled content starting in 1995.

The company plans to recycle 2 million pounds of plastic next year. The project is a partnership with the American Plastics Council, an industry group. But environmentalists question whether this should count as recycling. They acknowledge that pyrolysis is much better than incineration or landfill dumping. But some would rather see plastics recycled directly into new plastic products, as is typically done with paper, glass, and metal cans.

Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling magazine of Portland, Ore., says Oregon's law should not give pyrolysis equal footing with other recycling methods when measuring recycling rates. "It's not recycling; it's materials recovery," he says.

Oregon lawmakers are not the only ones wrangling over what recycling really is. "This is a national issue," Mr. Powell says. He adds that it is the "hottest" policy debate at the National Recycling Coalition, a professional association of which he is chairman.

The thermal decomposition method appears to comply with common definitions of recycling. …

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