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Chemicals Markets

Plastic chemical recycling could complement mechanical recycling, Zero Waste Europe study suggests.

“The EU should avoid repeating past mistakes in waste policy such as the financing of waste-to-energy technologies instead of the higher levels of the waste hierarchy.”

Chemical recycling can be a tool in the waste management toolbox and could support mechanical recycling, but the “hype” of chemical recycling should not divert attention from designing business models to make efficient use of plastics, according to a new report published by NGO Zero Waste Europe.

The report entitled ‘El Dorado of chemical recycling, state of play and policy challenges’, was published yesterday (29 August).

The document has been published at a time when chemical recycling is continually being promoted by industry as a potential solution to waste management and specifically plastic pollution.

The study analysed the solutions chemical recycling offered and the implementation of chemical recycling technologies in a European context.

The study also highlighted how chemical recycling offered a range of potential solutions to the limitations of plastic as a circular material and stated that chemical recycling should complement rather than jeopardise a “real circular economy”.

However, the report also acknowledged that chemical recycling technologies were still mostly at pilot stage and would not be able to operate at scale until the second half of the next decade at the earliest.

“Whilst chemical recycling can be a tool in the waste management toolbox, one should not forget that the solution to the plastic challenge is not to be found in how we manage the waste we create, but rather in how to prevent this waste from arising and preserve the value of materials in the economy,” the study added.

Currently, most plastic Is recycled via sorting, washing and compounding the different polymers into secondary plastics (mechanical recycling).  In contrast, there are a number of chemical recycling technologies that transform plastic waste into new plastics. This includes solvent-based purification, which decomposes plastics back to the polymer stage. It also includes chemical depolymerisation, which turns the plastics back into their monomers via a chemical reaction, and thermal depolymerisation, which in some cases can crack polymers back into monomers and further down into hydrocarbons. The latter process can also produce fuels.

‘Chemical recycling hype’

Commenting on the report, Zero Waste Europe (@zerowasteeurope) Executive Director Joan Marc Simon said: “The chemical recycling hype should not divert attention from the real solution to plastic pollution which is replacing single-use plastics, detoxifying and simplifying new plastics, and designing business models to make efficient use of plastics.”

In the report, Zero Waste Europe also said that this was particularly relevant when it came to potential EU funding to be made available in the coming years for the transition to a circular economy. “The EU should avoid repeating past mistakes in waste policy such as the financing of waste-to-energy technologies instead of the higher levels of the waste hierarchy,” the NGO said.

The NGO also recommends amendments to current EU waste legislation, including a new “clear definition” of chemical recycling that excludes any operation that does not result in the production of new plastic. It also recommends that only processes with a lower carbon footprint than the production of plastic from virgin feedstock can be classified as chemical recycling.

Overall, Zero Waste Europe said that the success of chemical recycling lies in the ability to be complementary to the other waste management processes whilst contributing to move towards a low-carbon circular economy.

Many industry experts have claimed that chemical recycling will be the next major trend in the waste management industry.

Earlier this year, Peter Jürgens, managing director at sustainability certification scheme REDCert, told Bio Market Insights: “In relation to the circular economy, the chemicals sector is really pressing ahead with this agenda. ‘Chemcycling’ is a big key to this, where waste is used as a valued feedstock for the chemicals business. Therefore, there is a big focus on using renewables instead of fossil sources and using recycled material instead of virgin fossil material.

“The feedstocks used for biochemicals are more or less the same like fossil fuel-based chemicals. For instance, take biomethane instead of natural gas. The beginning of the chain is always the same.”

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