A massive blaze at a plastic recycling facility in Richmond, Indiana, is a terrifying reminder that plastics are a pollution nightmare, one that recycling can’t fix. The fire started Tuesday night at a recycling and resale warehouse, which officials described as six buildings filled from floor to ceiling with plastic waste.
“We’re looking at close to 14 acres worth of plastic that’s piled everywhere,” Richmond Fire Department chief Tim Brown said at a press conference on Wednesday. “The entire complex is either burning or has burned.”
A billowing column of black smoke hovered over the burning facility and the surrounding community. Some 2,000 residents within half a mile of the fire were forced to evacuate because the smoke is toxic. People just outside of the evacuation zone were asked to shelter in place with their windows and doors tightly shut.
America doesn’t know what to do with its plastic
Last night, the City of Richmond said the fire was finally “under control.” But there’s still no word yet on when the air and environment will be safe enough for residents in the evacuation zone to return as the rubble continues to smolder.
This scenario is horrifying, but it’s also part of a larger problem. America doesn’t know what to do with its plastic. Very little of it is ever reused because of the chemistry and costs involved. Instead, the waste piles up — and when it does, like in the case of this warehouse, it can become dangerous.
Plastic is made out of fossil fuels after all, which makes it highly flammable. It burns hotter than other kinds of fires and is difficult to put out. And when it burns, plastic releases substances known to be harmful to humans. Soot and smoke from any fire can make it harder to breathe. But burning plastic also releases chemicals called dioxins, high exposure to which has been linked to cancer and reproductive and developmental problems, among other risks.
The EPA has been monitoring the air quality in Richmond to check for a host of pollutants that are typical of plastic fires. At the center of the evacuation zone, the EPA’s air monitors have detected: hydrogen cyanide, benzene, chlorine, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds.
“All of those things are dangerous when they’re concentrated … all of these molecules sort of work together to cause mischief in the body,” Cedric Rutland, a pulmonologist and a national spokesperson for the American Lung Association, told The Verge. Many of those compounds can cause inflammation in the lungs, for example.
It’s riskiest, he says, for people with a history of heart and lung conditions. And that’s often more common in areas where people live near industrial facilities, like this plastics recycling warehouse.
Even before the blaze there began, the surrounding neighborhood ranked in the 90th percentile for smog exposure and asthma risk, according to the EPA’s environmental justice screening tool. That means just 10 percent of Indiana residents live in places with greater exposure to smog or a higher risk of developing asthma.
Even after the blaze is out, officials need to assess whether there are any lingering chemicals from the fire that need to be cleaned up before residents can return to their homes. They’ve already warned people not to touch any debris around their homes, which might also contain asbestos from the warehouse buildings.
Fires aren’t uncommon at plastic recycling facilities
The Richmond blaze is extraordinary because of its size and severity. But fires aren’t uncommon at plastic recycling facilities. Retired chemical engineer Jan Dell has mapped 70 of them since 2019, when she founded a nonprofit that tackles plastic pollution called The Last Beach Cleanup. Earlier in her career, she worked as a consultant to oil, gas, and manufacturing companies — often conducting safety audits for different kinds of industrial facilities.
“I began to see how these plastic waste operations were run. I was absolutely horrified. And I started reading about all the fires,” she tells The Verge. “These plastic waste brokers and so-called recyclers are just piling up plastic in warehouses.”
Why is it just sitting there? When it comes to plastics in particular, recycling is mostly a myth. Only 9 percent of plastic waste has ever been recycled, research has found. The quality of the plastic deteriorates with each reuse, so even materials that are reused are most often “downcycled.”
Plastic bottles are often turned into fibers used for carpeting, for example. But the material can only be downcycled so many times before it eventually ends up in the trash. The kind of plastic used to make beverage bottles happens to be one of the easier types to reuse. And yet recycling facilities only have the capacity to process about 20 percent of it in the US, a Greenpeace report estimated last year.
Most other plastics are way more difficult to rehash than plastic bottles and jugs. And this is what filled the Richmond warehouse from wall to wall. The US used to send most of this waste to China, which stopped accepting it in 2018. Wealthier countries have started sending more waste to smaller developing countries as a result, where it’s often just incinerated.
Intentionally burning plastic as a fuel is yet another solution the industry has posed for dealing with its waste. They call it a form of chemical recycling, which essentially renders plastic back down into a fuel similar to diesel. That’s what a new plant not far from Richmond plans to do, although Inside Climate News reports that the operation has been mired with delays.
Unsurprisingly, the chemical recycling process, from making to eventually burning the fuel, creates more pollution. So, it’s just more greenwashing, says Veena Singla, a senior scientist studying toxic chemicals and health disparities at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.
Along with the February derailment of a train carrying chemicals used to make plastic resin, which created another toxic plume over East Palestine, Ohio, the disaster in Richmond this week “illustrates so starkly the toxic life cycle of plastics from the beginning to the end,” Singla says.