GAO Publishes Science & Tech Spotlight on Biorecycling of Plastics
By Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton
On November 21, 2022, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a Science & Tech Spotlight on biorecycling of plastics. Biological recycling, or biorecycling, is an emerging technology that uses microbes, such as bacteria or fungi, to break down plastic into its basic components for reuse. GAO states that research suggests that biorecycling of plastics could help promote a circular economy in which plastic waste is continuously reincorporated into new products. According to GAO, entities seeking to engage in biorecycling could face a “complicated legal landscape” that may pose a challenge for the emerging technology. At the federal level, depending on the specifics of the process, aspects of biorecycling or the wastes that may result from that process might be governed by statutes such as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and the Microbial Products of Biotechnology Rule. In addition, states, tribal organizations, municipalities, and other stakeholders, including nonprofit organizations, businesses, and other entities, can also play important roles in regulating or supporting recycling in the United States.
Opportunities from biorecycling of plastics include:
- Economic, environmental, and health gains. Biorecycling of plastics could help promote a circular economy by turning waste into more useful products while reducing dependence on fossil fuels for new plastics. Emerging recycling methods could help mitigate the negative health effects of incinerating plastic waste; and
- Processing efficiency. Biorecycling does not require the same level of sorting for plastic waste compared with mechanical recycling, thereby saving time and money. It also consumes less energy than mechanical and some chemical recycling methods.
GAO identified the following challenges:
- Implementation costs. Recycling plastics is generally more expensive than creating new plastics. Further, companies may face high start-up costs to develop a biorecycling facility;
- Limited applicability. The enzymes researchers have identified are currently limited to degrading only a few types of plastic; and
- Knowledge gaps. Research is needed to address the unintended consequences of biorecycling. For example, researchers have not assessed the risks engineered enzymes might pose if released into the environment.
According to GAO, policy context and questions include:
- What aspects of biorecycling could be prioritized to help reduce the accumulation of plastic waste and its economic and environmental effects?
- To what extent do current laws and regulations appropriately address concerns regarding the industrial use of engineered enzymes for biorecycling, while still allowing for their development?
- What steps could the federal government, states, municipalities, and other stakeholders take if they want to support or implement effective policies for biorecycling of plastic waste?
GAO states that it meets Congressional information needs in several ways, including by providing oversight, insight, and foresight on science and technology issues. GAO notes that it also provides targeted assistance on specific science and technology topics to support Congressional oversight activities and provide advice on legislative proposals.