Chemicals Markets

Chemical recycling technologies are still surrounded by many uncertainties and EU policymakers should put the ‘right’ policy framework in place to regulate sector, NGOs say

An increasing number of projects and policies appear to be promoting chemical recycling, while the technologies are still surrounded by many uncertainties, especially in relation to their impacts on the environment and health, NGOs have said in a new policy briefing published today.

The policy briefing on 7 steps to effectively legislate on chemical recycling was published by environmental group Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) and the Rethink Plastic Alliance (RPa).

The policy briefing comes at a time where chemical recycling is increasingly being promoted as a solution to the current plastic crisis. The industry claims that chemical recycling technologies will overcome the limitations of mechanical recycling, enabling an entirely circular economy for plastic.

However, according to ZWE (@zerowasteeurope) and RPa (@RethinkPlastic), the chemical recycling industry “offers very little evidence to support these claims”.

The environmental groups cite a recent review of research, which shows that chemical recycling faces many limitations, similar to those of mechanical recycling, such as the need to have a relatively pure feedstock. In addition, questions have been raised in relation to the environmental and health impacts of chemical recycling processes and their outputs.

Seeing an increasing number of projects and policies promoting chemical recycling, while the technologies are still surrounded by many uncertainties, ZWE and RPa call for upholding the precautionary principle and putting in place the right policy framework to regulate chemical recycling.

The new policy briefing highlights seven key steps to effectively regulate chemical recycling so as to avoid a scenario whereby chemical recycling becomes a loophole preventing the achievement of objectives related to the EU circular economy, climate and sustainable chemical policies.

The policy briefing recommends the following:

  1. Review EU waste legislation to introduce harmonised definitions of chemical recycling technologies
  2. Clarify the legal status of chemical recycling technologies in the waste hierarchy
  3. Limit chemical recycling feedstock to contaminated and degraded durable plastics
  4. Evaluate environmental and health impacts of chemical recycling at the industrial level
  5. Establish a robust methodology for calculating the climate impact of chemical recycling
  6. Develop a standard to establish the actual recycled content qualitatively and quantitatively
  7. Limit EU funding to chemical recycling processes that have a lower carbon footprint than the production of plastic from virgin feedstock

Finally, NGOs warn about putting too much expectation on a solution whose potential is yet to be proven.

“There is a clear risk that putting too much focus on downstream innovation could undermine preventive measures such as limiting the presence of hazardous substances in the materials and products, and waste generation in the first place,” Janek Vahk, Zero Waste Europe Climate, Energy & Air Pollution Policy Coordinator, said.

However, in response to the policy briefing, in a statement, trade association Chemical Recycling Europe said: “Chemical recycling is circular by definition. Chemical recycling represents an overarching category composed of different technologies that aims to close the material loop by converting plastic waste currently not recycled into high-quality products. These recycling techniques (sometimes described as upcycling or advanced recycling) reflects the essence of what circularity is by enabling the direct replacement of virgin material with its identical quality and properties. They, for instance, enable the inclusion of recycled content in food-grade applications.

“These various technologies convert polymeric waste in different value-added materials like monomers, naphtha, syngas, waxes and etc.

“Chemical recycling takes on a clear circular approach as the definition of chemical recycling excludes energy recovery: ‘Chemical recycling is defined as any reprocessing technology that directly affects either the formulation of the polymeric waste or the polymer itself and converts them into chemical substances and/or products whether for the original or other purposes, excluding energy recovery’”.

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