Encina Chemical Recycling Plant in Pennsylvania Faces Setback: One of its Buildings Is Too Tall

A proposed $1.1 billion plant for “advanced” recycling of plastic waste in Central Pennsylvania is blocked—for now—by a local zoning board’s decision on height restrictions.

Houston-based Encina has been working to secure environmental permits, financing and corporate partners for one of the larger proposed advanced recycling plants in the country, a technology still being developed that is supposed to use high heat and chemicals to turn plastic waste into fossil fuels or feedstocks for making new plastic products.

The company has said it plans to turn 450,000 tons of plastic waste annually—some 100 trucks a day—from urban centers like Pittsburgh, New York and Philadelphia, into benzene, toluene and xylene to serve as feedstocks for the new plastics. It’s part of a push by the chemical and plastics industries to develop what they call advanced forms of recycling intended to help solve a global plastic waste crisis and create a “circular economy” for plastics.

Environmentalists say such talk amounts to greenwashing because there is no “circular economy” for plastics, given how much energy is required for advanced recycling, the carbon emissions produced by the process and the paucity of waste plastic that actually becomes new plastic products in some of the recycling processes. Much of advanced recycling, they say, is essentially incineration. 

Encina has also pushed back its timeline for the construction and operation of the plant.

Most of the permits Encina needs, such as those for air pollution or water discharges, are handled by state regulators, or regional authorities who will scrutinize the company’s water withdrawals from the Susquehanna River. Those decisions are outside the jurisdiction of the small community, Point Township, population 4,000, where the plant would be located.

But last week it was a local zoning board, after hearing complaints from the plant’s would-be neighbors complaining about diminished views, that voted to deny Encina’s request to allow an 80-foot tall building, the equivalent of about eight stories, on the property where the plant is to be located on what was, last summer, a cornfield next to the Susquehanna River. 

The industrial zone there only allows 50-foot-tall buildings.

In their request for the variance, company officials had described their ask in an almost do-or-die manner. 

The building is to contain the plant’s “plastics recovery” equipment, used to prepare feedstock for a catalytic “pyrolysis” process. Generally, pyrolysis heats plastic waste at high temperatures in a vessel, with little or no oxygen and sometimes with a chemical catalyst, to create synthetic gases, a synthetic fuel called pyrolysis oil and a carbon char waste product.

“The applicant is entitled to the variance because applying Point Township’s ordinance strictly will result in an unnecessary hardship,” the company wrote in a Jan. 25 hearing request. “The unnecessary hardship is caused by the limits of the technology and the equipment, which make it impossible to construct the (plastic recovery facility) within height limits at the property.”

Because of the mechanical requirements, the company asserted, “the height of the (plastic recovery facility) cannot be varied in any way.”

During the standing-room-only public meeting attended by at least 50 people, with some crowded outside the door in a hallway, a representative of a local economic development agency that owns the 100-acre property and an Encina representative told the zoning board that Encina would have to “go back to the drawing board” if the variance was denied, according to a report in The Daily Item, a local newspaper.

It’s uncertain whether the company will appeal.

“No decisions have yet been made but … all options are being considered and I suspect that is what those folks meant about ‘going back to the drawing board’—to reconsider options given all current circumstances,” said Sheida R. Sahandy, the chief sustainability officer and general counsel for Encina. “When there is a firm decision, we will be happy to share that information.”

Encina had initially told state officials it intends to build the plant in two phases—the first opening next year, and the second toward the end of 2024. On Mar. 1, in a question-and-answer session with local residents, the company acknowledged a slower pace, predicting a first phase, which includes the facility in the tall building, could begin operations in 2025, with the chemical recycling starting in 2026.

The Encina proposal has stirred debate and opposition within and outside of Point Township, a community of about 4,000 people living in suburban homes and farms about 60 miles north of the state capital of Harrisburg. A local group calling itself Save Our Susquehanna has formed and has been working to raise awareness about its concerns.

“I’m cautiously optimistic they will not be able to build at that site,” said Sandy Field, chair of the Climate Reality Project’s Susquehanna Valley Chapter in Pennsylvania and part of the Save Our Susquehanna group. “In their application, they said if they didn’t get the variance, they would not be able to build at this site. Also, there’s significant opposition.”

Sandy Field, Chair of the Climate Reality Project's Susquehanna Valley Chapter in Pennsylvania. Credit: James Bruggers

Sandy Field, Chair of the Climate Reality Project’s Susquehanna Valley Chapter in Pennsylvania. Credit: James Bruggers

In November, a Philadelphia environmental group filed an appeal to block the Encina plant after the administration of former Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, exempted the facility from having to obtain a solid waste permit.

The Clean Air Council believes its challenge was the first after a 2020 law passed by Pennsylvania’s then-Republican legislature that classified “advanced recycling” as a manufacturing process, as opposed to waste management or waste incineration. 

The environmental group has been awaiting responses to its inquiries that are part of the appeals process.

Pennsylvania is one of 21 states that have passed such legislation, advocated by the American Chemistry Council to boost what it calls advanced recycling nationally.

Much of the concern about chemical recycling, depending on the process, both locally and globally, has to do with its energy use, questionable climate benefits, pollution, truck traffic and the perpetuation of single-use plastic in the economy. Some chemical recycling plants have been set up to turn plastic waste into fuels, which critics say extends a destructive fossil fuel based economy.

Others have questioned whether chemical recycling technology will even work because waste streams of plastics, like those from household recycling bins, are made up of so many different chemicals, some of them toxic, or whether it can even be considered a “circular” or “closed-loop” technology because of waste plastic lost during the recycling process.

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Encina, on its website, has said the chemicals it intends to make in Pennsylvania could be used to make everything from sports equipment to paint to plastic bottles. Encina announced in October it had signed an agreement with AmSty, a producer of polystyrene and styrene monomer, to purchase chemical feedstock from the Encina plant, according to Encina’s website. 

Sahandy characterized the opposition to the Encina proposal as something that’s been stirred up by outsiders.

“It is unfortunate that folks that are not even from Point Township, and who have very different interests, are creating fear in the local community, who are the ones who would benefit from the project,” Sahandy said. “I personally put my trust in the local community and that they will take the time to understand the facts and make up their own mind.”

Local government leaders, however, have previously described feeling left out of the company’s outreach.

Late last summer, Randall Yoxheimer, chairman of the locally elected board of supervisors, said that despite an April announcement by the company and one public meeting by that time, Encina officials had provided Point Township officials few details about their proposal and how it would work. Yoxheimer was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

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