Questions Surround the Plasticity of Our City
IRG sorting facility brings unaddressed public health, environmental concerns
In August 2020, International Recycling Group (IRG) announced plans to open a "mega-sized" plastic sorting facility in Erie. Since then, IRG founder and chairman Mitch Hecht has publicly touted the supposed benefits of the plant without addressing significant public health and environmental concerns. Erie should welcome new businesses warmly and encourage innovation as it revitalizes its economy. However, Erie should also enter into new relationships with healthy skepticism and eyes wide open.
IRG proposes to build a facility that requires a minimum of 20 acres of land in one of Erie's Opportunity Zones. The facility would receive plastic from up to a 750-mile radius with an expected volume of 50 trucks per day. Once the plastic is received at the facility, marketable plastic will be separated for recycling, but non-marketable plastic will be shredded and shipped by barge across Lake Erie and sold to a steel company in Nanticoke, Ontario. The plastic will then be used in blast furnaces as part of the steelmaking process.
There are numerous environmental concerns throughout this process and much more information is required to understand the full impacts of IRG's largely untested plastic disposal methods. First, truck transportation to and from the facility will generate abundant air pollution and greenhouse gases. Localized air pollution will disproportionately affect those dwelling in what the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recognizes as Environmental Justice Areas, particularly people of color and those living below the poverty line. Increased truck traffic will also increase wear and tear on Erie's roads.
The proposal to ship these plastics by barge across Lake Erie provides ample opportunity for flakes to escape. Erie already has a problem with plastics in the form of litter and plastic pellets or nurdles. These pellets escape during transport into Erie County and are transported by wind and rain into our streams and out to Lake Erie. We know they are finding their way onto our beaches as well. Flaked plastic, due to its shape and near weightlessness, will be spread in our environment even more readily than these pellets. Once in the water, plastic is known to attract toxins and bacteria and then be eaten by fish and birds. Many of the toxins accumulate in animal tissues and increase in concentration at higher levels of the food chain, leading to fish consumption advisories that are all too familiar in our region. IRG proposes to use closed containers to ship these flakes, but much more detail is needed to determine whether that is enough to contain these pesky pollutants.
The majority of plastic received by the plant will likely be sent across Lake Erie, destined for a blast furnace, because lucrative markets do not exist for most types of recycled plastics. The realities of plastic recycling are that actual recycling is messy, not very profitable, and energy-intensive. Recycling has never been the answer to our plastic problem, and non-solutions like "advanced" or "chemical" recycling only threaten to make a bad problem worse. Developing new end uses for plastic is not a solution to the plastic problem. We simply have too much plastic and the only sustainable solution to that problem is to reduce the amount we use and produce. In fact, if burning plastic is lucrative, more plastic will be produced, not less. This could also lead to more extraction of oil and fracked gas for plastic production.
Injecting plastic into blast furnaces with coke will produce toxic byproducts. Heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium will be released into the air and the solid waste generated by this process is poorly studied. Erie residents may take comfort in the fact that the plastic is not being burned here, but that would be a false comfort. Nanticoke, Ontario is located just 40 miles across the lake from Erie. Even if wind patterns don't allow that air pollution to reach us, the pollutants emitted will deposit into the water and spread throughout the lake we share. Mercury and cadmium accumulate in the bodies of living organisms in Lake Erie and can be distributed that way as well.
It is critical that we have all of the facts before we decide whether this potential plastic sorting facility is a good fit for the region. Protection of human health and our water resources should weigh heavily in this decision. Erie residents and decision-makers need to hear specific plans from IRG addressing the serious environmental and public health concerns, and a public hearing should be held where residents can weigh in on whether or not this facility is right for Erie.
Sarah Bennett is the campaign manager for Clean Water Advocacy at PennFuture and a member of the 2020 class of Erie's 40 Under 40.