Outside a hulking, beige structure shaped like a barn, a few miles northeast of downtown Tyler, Karen Combs spots something glossy and red on a gloomy January afternoon. “There was your Skittles,” she says, pulling a shredded candy wrapper from one of several waist-high sacks sitting next to a conveyor belt and filled to the brim with plastic. Combs shows the red fragment to her company’s chief operating officer, Ron Nussle, who had earlier that day noted that misprinted Skittles wrappers were among the waste plastic they’d recently received from suppliers.

The hum of a furnace blower provides a constant din at the plant, which does what’s known as advanced plastics recycling. The conveyor belt carries remnants of Skittles wrappers, padded Amazon mailers, bags that held Tide detergent pods, and assorted other forms of plastic up to a tank in which they are melted into a steaming hot liquid. That liquid is funneled through a pipe into a reactor where, in an environment devoid of oxygen and again heated to a blistering temperature, a process known as pyrolysis turns most of it into a vapor before it cools back into a liquid. Combs’s company, New Hope Energy, sells that liquid to plastic producers Dow, Chevron Phillips Chemical, and others.

Petrochemical firms have been under increasing pressure to reduce plastic waste. The European Union introduced a levy on nonrecycled plastic in 2021, and California will require companies to reduce the amount of plastic in single-use products, such as shampoo bottles or food containers, by 25 percent by 2032. Every year, some 350 million metric tons of plastic are produced globally, most of it ending up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean.

Only a tiny share of U.S. plastic—about 9 percent, according to the EPA—gets recycled, compared to about 35 percent of aluminum and 68 percent of paper. Plastic is more expensive to collect and sort and more difficult to break down. Most plastic products are composed of multiple polymers mixed together, an alphabet soup known as PE, PET, and PP, not to mention various colors and other additives that brands use to differentiate themselves. Clear plastic bottles are just about the only form of plastic that gets recycled and made into plastic products again. 

Enter advanced plastics recycling, the most common form of which is pyrolysis. Some in the petrochemical industry tout it as a holy grail—a solution for much of the world’s plastic waste problem that will allow them to continue pumping out new plastic. But plenty of observers, from environmentalists to plastics-industry vets, don’t think the technology is environmentally friendly, or that it can put much of a dent in how much plastic ends up in landfills. These critics argue that it’s a distraction from a pressing need to reduce the use of plastic.

Questions also abound about whether petrochemical firms are using the pyrolysis oil like a diesel fuel instead of turning it into new plastic, and whether advanced plastics recycling companies, many of which so far have failed to reach their own production goals, can create enough demand to operate at a mass scale.

New Hope believes it can become a global leader in the industry. In Tyler, executives anticipate an expansion in 2026 that will ramp up the amount of plastic waste the facility converts from about 1,500 metric tons annually today to about 140,000 metric tons. That’s the equivalent of billions of Skittles wrappers, and it would represent more plastic than what any advanced recycling facility in the world converts. It’s also less than 0.4 percent of all the plastic used in the United States annually.

The idea for New Hope Energy was hatched around 2012 by Karen Combs’s late husband, Johnny Combs. A native Texan who often wore a hard hat made to look like a Stetson, he worked as an engineer in the Air Force and consulted in the stormwater industry before turning his attention to waste-to-diesel conversion and eventually pyrolysis. “Johnny believed if you studied ten thousand hours on any subject, you could begin to be an expert in that field,” Karen says, likely referring to an idea popularized by the writer Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, Outliers.

Although scientists and academics had studied pyrolysis since at least the seventies, the technology wasn’t used at a commercial scale for recycling until a few years ago because it wasn’t economically feasible. But after 2018, when China stopped importing plastic waste, the U.S. had to look for alternatives to shipping this trash overseas.

Advanced plastics recycling is not like recycling an aluminum can into another can, over and over. It’s not even like plastic mechanical recycling, the conventional form of plastic recycling, in which plastic is shredded into flakes and made into pellets that can be used for a new product, such as polyester threads in a sweater or jacket. Instead, pyrolysis breaks plastic down beyond the molecular level and turns it into a new substance—oil mostly, but also gas and an ashy residue known as char. The oil and gas can be turned into pellets by plastic producers.

Pyrolysis can be used on polyethylene and polypropylene plastics, which account for only about half of the plastics we use, according to Taylor Uekert, a circular economy research analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. There remains no good recycling option for the other half of plastics. But advanced plastics recycling is not as efficient as mechanical recycling, requiring more plastic waste to create a single new plastic product.

New Hope Energy
Pyrolysis oil at New Hope Energy. Mark Dent
New Hope Energy
Plastic waste at New Hope Energy. Mark Dent

To devise his own pyrolysis process, Johnny Combs first experimented in his Frisco backyard with household equipment—including a kitchen pot, turkey fryer, and radiator.  He subsequently opened a production facility in the small town of Justin, about 25 miles north of Fort Worth. When the company wanted to expand and couldn’t find any suitable land for industrial use in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, they built the plant in Tyler in 2018.

Johnny managed nearly all of the plant’s operations for the first few years and raised $30 million. After he died in 2021, his son Rusty took over as CEO. Ron Nussle, an early investor and supply-chain executive who served in the State Department under Mike Pompeo, became COO and assembled a management team that aims to make New Hope Energy the first advanced plastics company in the U.S. to achieve industrial scale.

They’re up against relatively few domestic competitors. Globally, the research consultancy the Nova Institute estimates, there are more than 200 advanced plastics recycling facilities, but analysts say only eleven are located in the United States. ExxonMobil has one in Baytown and plans to operate twelve more, in locations ranging from Beaumont to Singapore, by 2026. The American Chemistry Council, a trade group whose membership includes petrochemical companies, estimates that the U.S. could support more than 150 advanced plastic recycling plants, and it’s a good bet Texas will see more.

The state Legislature boosted the prospects for advanced plastics recycling by classifying such facilities as manufacturing plants in 2019, freeing them from regulations and fees they’d face as solid waste processors. Texas, noted George Huber, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, “has the best infrastructure in the country for processing oil,” and much of that could be repurposed for processing pyrolysis oil, too.

For now, though, New Hope is in the same position as basically every other player in its industry: light on business and unprofitable. Most advanced plastics recycling plants in the U.S. are operating below their capacity, said Brittany Martin of energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. She questions whether there’s enough demand yet for pyrolysis oil for any facilities to see a return on their investments. It’s more expensive to make plastic from pyrolysis oil than from virgin materials, so their only clients are petrochemical firms willing to pay a premium, likely because they want to plan ahead for potential financial penalties on virgin plastics, or simply to promote an image of sustainability. “I think a lot of it is greenwashing,” Martin said. “If you put the name ‘recycling’ on anything, people assume that it’s green and it’s good for the environment.”   

Supply is a problem too. Relatively few companies collect, clean, and sort plastic waste because in the last few decades hardly anyone would pay for it. If an advanced plastics recycling firm wishes to ramp up production, said Matt Slutzker, another Wood Mackenzie researcher, it will need to look farther afield for suppliers, leading to higher transportation costs, and potentially settle for types of plastic that are tougher to recycle, leading to a less efficient conversion process and higher costs.   

These problems could dissipate. More companies could begin collecting and sorting plastic with the advent of more advanced plastics recyclers willing to pay for it. Consumer demand and legislation may also force manufacturers and petrochemical firms to develop more recycled plastics, regardless of the added costs. “It’s in the best interest of these [advanced plastics recycling] companies to get ahead now,” Martin said.

Combs said New Hope Energy has enough clients and a more than sufficient supply of plastic waste to support its projected expansion. What it doesn’t have, he said, is enough funding from investors to grow its operations to that level. The company is caught in a chicken-and-egg situation: investors want to see that New Hope Energy can recycle massive quantities of plastic in a larger reactor, but New Hope cannot build that larger reactor with the funding for it.

This dearth of investor interest already prompted a delay in the expected completion date for the plant’s expansion, from 2024 to at least 2026. New Hope is working with an investment bank to try to raise the capital, and Combs spends much of his time on fundraising. “Everyone in our industry is figuring out: What do we have to prove?” he said. “What do we have to accomplish for those dollars to flow so that we can do it at that larger size?”   

In late January, the French petroleum giant TotalEnergies announced that it had successfully converted pyrolysis oil from New Hope into a building block for plastic, “a new step forward in our commitment to meeting the global market’s growing demand for more innovative and sustainable plastics,” an executive said in a press release. Total started buying oil from New Hope in May 2022 and claims that, by 2030, it aims to produce one million tons of “circular polymers,” plastic building blocks made from recycled material such as pyrolysis oil. But when Texas Monthly asked how much plastic the company now makes from pyrolysis oil, Total did not respond.

Such a lack of disclosure from petrochemical firms increases skepticism of advanced plastics recycling. Many observers have expressed doubts about whether petrochemical firms are using significant amounts of pyrolysis oil to create plastic. A 2023 report prepared by the Australian philanthropic foundation Minderoo, Wood Mackenzie, and the consultancies Carbon Trust and KPMG suggested most pyrolysis oil ends up being refined into a fuel for diesel engines. In addition to Total, Texas Monthly asked Dow and Chevron Phillips Chemical—two other New Hope clients—how much pyrolysis oil they convert into new plastic versus how much they use as fuel, and the amount of plastic they develop from it. All declined to provide specifics.

Regardless of what pyrolysis oil becomes, the environmental benefits are controversial. A 2023 study in the journal Energy & Environmental Science showed pyrolysis produces between 1.5 and 4 times more greenhouse gas emissions than making plastic from petroleum. Other studies have indicated a roughly equal amount of greenhouse gas emissions between the two processes, if the calculation considers emissions avoided by not transporting and placing plastic waste in landfills, or incinerating it. One 2022 study commissioned by the petrochemical firm–backed American Chemistry Council indicated more than 50 percent fewer emissions for pyrolysis.

But Uekert, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said the consensus is that pyrolysis leads to more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional plastic production, numbers that could change with technological improvements. A potential reduction of plastic waste in landfills and the environment is a benefit, Uekert said, but greenhouse gas emissions are “the predominant issue, considering climate change.”

Judith Enck, a former regional EPA administrator and the president of Beyond Plastics, which recently released a report critical of advanced plastics recycling, would prefer almost anything to pyrolysis. “I hate landfills. But I think from an environmental perspective, it’s better to landfill plastic,” she said.

Combs conceded that improvements must be made in the advanced plastics recycling industry, but he believes plastics aren’t going anywhere and pointed to a McKinsey analysis that showed the product life cycle for plastic involves lower greenhouse gas emissions than thirteen common alternatives, such as paper and wood.

In Tyler, at an old FedEx warehouse where New Hope shreds plastic material before transporting it to the pyrolysis plant, the remnants of America’s dependence on plastic were on full display. Countless wrappers, frozen food packages, and black and yellow pom-poms were piled into dozens of bales stacked up to eight feet high, nearly reaching the ceiling in some sections of the building.

As Rusty Combs and other New Hope executives walked toward the shredder—a tall, blue machine operated by two employees—he started to talk about the potential future: consumer brands redesigning the look and feel of their plastic containers to be made from material that’s easier to recycle through pyrolysis, new companies entering the market to sort and collect plastic waste—an evolution spurred by advanced plastics recycling.

Combs acknowledged that the onus is on New Hope and others in the business to prove such a world-changing future is viable. For now, most of the Tyler plant will continue to sit idle.