Photo credit: Rachel Wolford
Erie, Penn., is a Rust Belt city typified by the flight of industry over the past few decades. The plight of this area has left the door open to the opportunism of “green” industry and it is currently being courted by International Recycling Group. IRG touts “a landfill-free solution to post-use plastic,” and claims to be bringing the largest plastics sorting facility in the world to Erie where they guarantee no plastic will be destined for landfills.
IRG flashes advanced sorting mechanisms like lasers as its chic, technology-driven solution to the global plastics crisis. This operation is expected to process 50 tractor trailers’ worth of plastic per day sourced from within a 750-mile radius of Erie. Recycled material would be processed into flakes and either sold to manufacturers such as Erie’s Plastek Group for plastic molds or to steel manufacturers as a substitute for coke in the blast furnaces of the steel production chain. All of this sounds well and good, but local, statewide, and international environmental activists and organizations think otherwise.
If the goal is to reduce plastics pollution, how does an operation that would fuel plastics production justify itself? IRG Founder Mitch Hecht said in 2013 of the process: “It can replace coke by roughly 1:1 and there’s a permanent supply of it. We’ll be preventing so much waste plastic from going to the landfills and we can hedge the product since it is waste. So, we can offer fixed-price, long-term contracts to steel mills. This is a profound development.” Hecht said it himself — a “permanent supply.” The truth is IRG is not interested in the only real solution to the plastics crisis — cessation of plastics production — it is interested in “a trillion-dollar market opportunity.”
There is no good reason why workers need to choose between unemployment or a job in an environmentally harmful industry. This is a false choice put forward by the big corporations that profit from the destruction of the environment. More than enough wealth exists to ensure that all people can have decent-paying jobs, and no one needs to lose their job or income if society makes the urgently necessary transition to renewable energy and industry.
Even if there was extensive evidence corroborating the claim that such a substitution in steel production would be environmentally sound (there’s not), how does driving up demand on the state-subsidized fossil fuel industry and virgin plastics producers constitute an environmental win? And if Hecht’s comments don’t expose IRG’s motivations conspicuously enough, a look at their parent company, GreenSteel, LLC, and the members of IRG’s advisory board, nearly half of whom have long associations with steel and similar industries, may do the trick. Not to mention IRG’s 2019 memorandum of understanding with Stelco Inc., a steel manufacturing plant positioned across Lake Erie in the Canadian province of Ontario.
Where does such a corporation gain the confidence to celebrate such a “breakthrough” in the plastics crisis anyway? IRG isn’t a recent conception; it’s been around in similar forms for over a decade, both in South Carolina and at least on paper in Indiana where its operations failed. Their claims to solve the plastics crisis have been the same with each iteration, yet each attempt has failed whereupon they abandoned their host community. Trademarks for their coke-substitute solutions have also curiously been abandoned.
Such a seemingly highly-esteemed company is celebrated by some, though, and IRG’s local alliances are many. The Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, whose Board of Directors boasts delegates from the largest monied interests in the region — Erie Insurance, Marquette Savings Bank, PNC Financial Services Group, UPMC Health Plan, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Penn State University, and more — has led this effort well with no shortage of non-investigative, complicit press coverage from local media. James Grunke, CEO of the Chamber, claims, “They got into the community and they got to know the players.” Who knew the community was comprised entirely of corporate spokespeople?
At a governmental level, IRG benefits from recent Pennsylvania legislation supported by both Democrats and Republicans. It essentially includes some plastics-to-fuel processes in what is commonly termed as “advanced recycling.” It may position some “advanced recycling” facilities to receive state funding.
The definition of plastics recycling is not as it’s been marketed to be — an infinite reconstitution of plastic products. If it can be done at all, recycling results in a post-consumer plastic product with significantly reduced material integrity, meaning it is then virtually unrecyclable except as fuel as IRG and similar ventures proclaim. In essence, recyclable plastics have a very limited number of lives, disqualifying them as a solution to the plastics crisis. The Pennsylvania-based environmental advocacy group PennFuture and Canadian Environmental Law Association share these concerns, as coordinated via the Toxics Free Great Lakes Network.
All these queries have been raised and discussed frequently by northwest Pennsylvania’s Green New Deal Coalition and other concerned locals, but concerns aren’t entirely environmental. The proposed IRG facility is set to be located in an Erie Insurance “opportunity zone,” a scheme to offer shelter against capital gains taxes to companies willing to inject investment into impoverished downtown Erie neighborhoods and drive their “redevelopment” — meaning gentrification. This is justified by the potential creation of 150 family-sustaining jobs and hiring preference to be given to those in the facility’s host neighborhood, but with no details defining what “family-sustaining” is supposed to mean or whether those seeking employment will have the qualifications the company requires.
Erie is no stranger to this sort of struggle. Recently the grassroots organization Hold Erie Coke Accountable drove out the Erie Coke Corporation which had been producing coke for such uses as steel manufacturing. The downtown Erie site of that plant is now undergoing EPA remediation due to its toxic brownfield designation. Those living in Erie, especially its industrial neighborhoods, are wise to the greenwashing, chauvinistic games IRG is playing.
Even when faced with such global, existential threats as climate change and ecological collapse, the capitalist system is incapable and unwilling to commit to sufficient action. This can be seen in the recent failure of the privatized energy infrastructure in Texas, desertification of the Southwest, and widespread wildfires in the American West.
We need planned coordination between industries to address unnecessary and harmful production of such materials as petrochemicals and plastics. To effectively address the issue of climate change, we need to be able to confront head-on the reality that the big corporations in western capitalist countries — and these countries’ militaries — are the world’s leading polluters by magnitudes. The capitalist ruling class says at best they can enact minimal measures some odd number of years down the line, but we don’t have that kind of time.