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Chemicals Markets

Chemical recycling or recovery? The circular economy hangs in the balance

By Janek Vahk, Development and Policy Coordinator at Zero Waste Europe

Plastic has a problem. A few plastics get reused or recycled. Most plastics – around 70% – get simply incinerated or dumped at landfill sites.

New research shows that plastics are now found everywhere: in our food, water, air, etc.

Under the public pressure to address the growing plastic pollution issue, plastic producers are increasingly promoting plastics chemical reprocessing technologies that are often referred to as “chemical recycling”, as the solution to the current plastic crises.

The industry claims that “chemical recycling” technologies, especially pyrolysis and gasification, are able to effectively and sustainably convert all types of plastic waste into its original building blocks, thus enabling an entirely circular economy in plastics.

While such outputs in theory allow more flexibility, since they can be transformed into many different materials or chemicals using existing petrochemical infrastructure, they are challenging in practice.

In fact, a recent review of scientific and technological evidence highlights the limits of these technologies to deal with plastic waste as well as the high energy consumption requirement of these processes. Moreover a report by GAIA assessing the state of the facilities purported as “chemical recycling” reveals that out of the 37 plastics “chemical recycling” plants proposed since the early 2000’s, only three are currently operational and none have been proven to successfully recover plastic to make new plastics on a commercial scale.

chemical recyclingIn addition, there is a profound lack of information available about the potential environmental and health impacts of chemical recycling processes and their related outputs.

Seeing an increasing number of industry partnerships promoting “chemical recycling”, while the technologies are still surrounded by many uncertainties, including on their impacts, it is key to uphold the precautionary principle and put in place the right policy framework to ensure these technologies do not become a loophole preventing  the  achievement  of  objectives  related  to  the EU circular economy, climate and sustainable chemical policies.

It is of utmost importance that the new policy framework categorises technologies such as pyrolysis and gasification also known as “feedstock recycling” as recovery and not recycling. This prioritisation would ensure the least environmental harm from “chemical recycling technologies”.

In addition, prior to incentivising any chemical recycling technology, policies must ensure the inclusion of necessary conditions for transparency on processes and performance, including an evaluation of health and environmental impacts (e.g. of hazardous substances) at the industrial level. This independent evidence should facilitate the qualitative assessment of the outputs of the chemical recycling process to guarantee its quality, including in terms of chemical content.

Above all, potential measures to legislate chemical recycling shouldn’t overshadow preventive approaches, for example by limiting the presence of hazardous substances in materials and products, and waste generation in the first place.

To implement a precautionary approach, the EU must ensure that products requiring a large number of chemicals and resources are tackled under the Circular Economy Action Plan and the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability. Focusing too much on downstream solutions could undermine this exercise. Moreover, there is a risk of putting too many expectations on a solution whose potential is yet to be proven. This could delay the necessary efforts in the field of rethinking business models, materials, and product redesign, including eliminating hazardous substances from plastics at the design stage.

This expert view is part of BMI’s spotlight week on chemical recycling. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Bio Market Insights’ editorial team and management.

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If you were interested in this bioeconomy story, you may also be interested in the ones below.

Read: Quantafuel inks waste plastic contract with Grønt Punkt Norge to boost chemical recycling project

Read: Conventional plastic industry is using ‘Coronavirus as an excuse’ to revive old habits

Read: Ineos to produce bio-based PVC from pulp production by-product.

Read: Neste and Remondis link up to develop chemical recycling of plastic waste.

Read: Ineos Styrolution and Agilyx advance US chemical recycling facility.

Read: Braskem starts trials on chemical recycling of plastic waste.

Read: UPM to invest in new biorefinery to produce wood-based biochemicals.

Read: Dow teams up with UPM to produce bio-based plastics.

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