Chemical Recycling: Craig Cookson, American Chemistry Council

17 January 2024

Craig Cookson, Senior Director, Plastics Sustainability, American Chemistry Council

Craig Cookson, Senior Director, Plastics Sustainability, American Chemistry Council

Ahead of the Chemical Recycling event in Houston, TX in March 2024, Craig Cookson shares insights on current and future market trends and challenges, and the recent developments in this growing industry.

What is the most important lesson you have learned through your work on chemical recycling?

While many of the technologies used in chemical recycling have been around for some time, there have been a lot of new innovations in how the technologies are deployed to create a more circular future for plastics. Every innovation takes time to be brought to market, but it’s been inspiring to get to know the entrepreneurs that are working hard to build their businesses and do good at the same time. I admire and appreciate their drive and commitment. At ACC, we are focused on creating the policy environment and market opportunities to accelerate and maximize their efforts.

What common misconceptions do people have about advanced/chemical recycling? How can these be addressed?

We often hear that because we are advocating for chemical recycling facilities to be regulated as manufacturing operations that they are not being regulated at all – which is far from the truth. The facilities are being stringently and accurately regulated as the manufacturing facilities that they are. Like other manufacturers, advanced or chemical recycling facilities must comply with multiple, rigorous requirements to operate, which typically include the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act as well as many state and local regulations. Consistent definitions at the federal level would be helpful in expanding recycling efforts in the future.

What challenges does advanced recycling face in North America and how can these be overcome?

Chemical recyclers need access to more plastic – more being both quantity and quality. To recycle more plastic, there needs to be expanded investment in the collection, sortation, and aggregation. A new report from The Recycling Partnership emphasizes this, saying “investment should be targeted in locations where the gains are the greatest.” The industry has taken this philosophy and is working on building up regional programs and partnerships to improve post-consumer recycling and allow for more access to plastics for the recyclers. We are also advocating for a producer responsibility (EPR) system for packaging to help increase recycling access, collection, and outreach for all materials. Creating a funding system financed and directed by the private sector can help pay for the recycling infrastructure our nation needs.

Will the energy balance of chemical recycling improve in the foreseeable future?

A report from the City College of New York showed that “the compilation of analyses demonstrate that the use of advanced recycling reduced GHG emissions for a large majority of scenarios” – but there’s always room to improve. American ingenuity and efficiency continue to improve – from advanced microchips to batteries and storage to generating renewable energy. As such, chemical recycling too is becoming more efficient. To date, at many facilities, the gases created as a byproduct in the pyrolysis process have been used as energy to power the system. In the future, those gases are expected to also become a feedstock and we’ll see other innovations such as Covestro’s recent announcement that utilizes renewable energy sources for powering their operations.

You will be speaking at the Chemical Recycling USA 2024 conference, could you share a little of what you will be talking about and what you are looking forward to.

At ACC, our key priorities are to drive innovation, smart public policy, and collaboration throughout the plastics value chain to accelerate our transition to a circular economy and a lower carbon future. Our industry is at an inflection point and needs a policy environment to help it grow and reach its full potential. We need the entire value chain to advocate for well-structured legislation, offering standard definitions, recycled content goals – to advance science-based policy so plastics can help us solve society’s most pressing challenges. I’m looking forward to this conference to really come together with the stakeholders and talk about the ways we can work collaboratively because we can be more effective together.

Lastly, if you had to be one type of plastic, what would you be and why? (optional question)

At the American Chemistry Council, we represent all different types of resins so I don’t want to play favorites -- I’d be them all!

The fourth edition of AMI's Chemical Recycling event returns to Houston, TX on March 12-13, 2024. Find out more