Paused Ohio chemical recycling plant puts spotlight on Appalachia as “prime target” for the controversial practice

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — On a bright, cold day in February, Akim Lattermore stood in front of her house gesturing toward the site of a proposed facility that would convert old tires, electronic waste and plastic into fuel.

The site, owned by SOBE Thermal Energy Systems, is currently home to crumbling old buildings and a natural-gas-powered steam heat generating unit. It’s less than half a mile from Lattermore’s home, visible from her front yard, which bears a sign with a picture of a black plume of smoke and the message “Stop SOBE. We have enough toxic air pollution.”

“I’m a two-time cancer survivor,” Lattermore told Environmental Health News (EHN). “I believe that our environment has a lot to do with it.”

Youngstown has a long industrial history and is still home to numerous sources of industrial pollution, including a steel plant and other metal fabricators, a concrete plant and a hazardous waste processing facility. Youngstown’s polluting industries released 80,600 pounds of toxic chemicals into air and water in 2022, including carcinogenic heavy metals like lead, nickel and chromium compounds, and possible carcinogens like ethylbenzene, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxics Release Inventory.

Residents like Lattermore fear that SOBE’s proposed chemical recycling plant — currently on hold after the city passed a one-year moratorium — will only add to this toxic burden.

“I’m a two-time cancer survivor. I believe that our environment has a lot to do with it.” – Akim Lattermore, Youngstown, Ohio, resident

There are proposals in the works for similar chemical recycling plants across the country. According to a 2023 report by the nonprofit organization Beyond Plastics, 11 such facilities had already been constructed in the U.S. as of September 2023, with one closing this year.

Proposals for projects similar to SOBE’s throughout the Ohio River Valley have also met with community resistance — but more are likely on the way.

“Appalachia is definitely a prime target for chemical recycling,” Jess Conard, Appalachia director of the nonprofit Beyond Plastics, told EHN. “There are often big tax subsidies available for these kinds of industries in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, and it’s part of the culture of this region that people feel like they have to make health sacrifices to put food on the table, as we’ve seen with extractive industries like coal mining and fracking.”

chemical recycling plastic

chemical recycling Youngstown

At least two other chemical recycling plants in Ohio have received state or local subsidies, according to a 2023 Beyond Plastics’s report. Alterra, located in Akron, Ohio, received a $1.6 million state loan and support from the city of Akron in the form of various discounts, including a $1 per year property lease in return for “a percentage of the project’s future cash flow,” while Purecycle in Ironton, Ohio, received $250 million in revenue bonds from the Southern Ohio Port Authority.

Chemical recycling facilities may also receive federal subsidies through numerous programs, including the Department of Energy’s $25 million Strategy for Plastic Innovation, grants and loans from the Department of Defense and the Department of Agriculture, and the federal Inflation Reduction Act.

While these projects plow ahead promising an answer to the plastics crisis, communities are concerned about the impacts.

“Right now there’s no proof that this is safe,” Tom Hetrick, president of Youngstown City Council, which passed the year-long moratorium, told EHN.

Chemical recycling controversy 

chemical recycling plastic waste

Chemical recycling is an umbrella term for processes that use heat, chemicals or both to break down plastic waste into component parts for reuse as plastic feedstocks or as fuel. These processes are different from conventional or mechanical plastic recycling, which breaks down plastic waste physically but not at a molecular level. Only 5 to 6% of plastic waste gets recycled in the U.S., and proponents of chemical recycling say it could help create a truly circular economy.

“We’re not going to create circularity for plastics with one single solution,” Chris Layton, director of sustainability for specialty plastics at Eastman Chemical Company, told EHN. “We’re going to have to eliminate some plastics we really don’t need, figure out ways to reduce and reuse and maximize what we can do for mechanical and advanced recycling.”

However, opponents say chemical recycling facilities worsen climate change and emit toxic chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and other persistent pollutants; volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. Lattermore worries about the cumulative effects.

“So many other members of my family who have lived in this house have also had cancer. My grandma, my dad, my sister,” Lattermore said. “I have four grandkids, two daughters. How are they going to survive living so close to that type of waste?”

The American Chemistry Council is advocating for relaxed environmental regulations for these types of facilities, encouraging states to reclassify them from solid waste facilities to manufacturing facilities, which requires less rigorous permitting applications, reduces regulatory oversight of air emissions and toxic waste and allows them to seek additional taxpayer subsidies. Ohio is one of 24 states that have already done this, along with Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi — a grouping that encompasses most of the Ohio River Valley and much of Appalachia.

“We’re not going to create circularity for plastics with one single solution.” Chris Layton, Eastman Chemical Company

Meanwhile, environmental advocates are fighting to stop these plants from being constructed.

“Even if all of the advanced recycling plants in the U.S. were functioning at full capacity with no issues, they would only be managing 1.3% of global plastic waste we currently have,” Conard said. “The plastic industry is pushing this technology as a solution so they can continue manufacturing new plastic.”

Environmental justice concerns 

Lattermore was among a group of local residents who fought to stop SOBE’s plant in Youngstown. They distributed fliers, called policymakers and knocked on doors to gather hundreds of petition signatures. Eventually, they garnered support from Youngstown City Council.

“I think one of my primary concerns is the location,” Hetrick said. “It’s in a busy neighborhood. There are residential neighbors, two popular bars right there, a restaurant caddy corner, a church on the other side, a five or six story jail a half block in the other direction, and a bunch of Youngstown State University student housing right there.”

“It’s also an environmental justice area, and in terms of environmental risks and hazards it just seems like a terrible place to put this kind of operation,” he explained.

In September, a representative from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency noting that the project “raises potential environmental justice concerns” because Youngstown ranks in the 80th percentile in the state for pollution from include ozone, diesel particulate matter, air toxics cancer risk, traffic proximity, lead paint, Superfund site Proximity, Risk Management Program (RMP) facility proximity, hazardous waste proximity, underground storage tanks and wastewater discharge.

“The population living in the area around the facility is significantly comprised of people of color, linguistically isolated households (Spanish language), those with low income, those with less than a high school education and a high unemployment rate,” the letter noted, before advising the Ohio EPA to “conduct a more thorough environmental justice analysis of appropriate scope to inform the permitting decision.”

In December, Youngstown City Council unanimously voted to adopt a one-year moratorium on pyrolysis, gasification or combustion of tires, plastics and electronic waste. Council said they intended to spend the year further researching these types of facilities.

“In terms of environmental risks and hazards it just seems like a terrible place to put this kind of operation.” – Tom Hetrick, president of Youngstown City Council

When Hetrick researched other facilities, he found stories about dangerous accidents and fires at a chemical recycling plant in Ashley, Indiana, which amplified his concerns.

In a statement about the moratorium on its website, SOBE said the company “respects this cautious approach and is committed to working closely with city officials and community members.” SOBE did not respond to a request for an interview.

In February, the Ohio EPA issued an air permit for SOBE’s proposed plant, prompting outcry from the community.

“I am deeply disappointed in the Ohio EPA and their decision to grant a permit to SOBE,” Hetrick said in a statement after the announcement. “It’s clear to me that the Ohio EPA spent months copying, categorizing and calculating the hundreds of comments from concerned Youngstown residents, but not actually listening to us or responding in any meaningful way.”