Recycling is defined as the recovery and reprocessing of waste materials for use in new products. Chemical recycling is often presented as a promising set of technologies, allowing for the output of clean recycled material by removing toxic contaminants from plastics. However, significant process challenges remain, including high energy consumption, toxic biproducts and limitations in which waste streams can be used.
To date, all chemical recycling methods require further evidence before it can be established that they can safely and efficiently recycle plastics back to plastics. And it cannot be regarded as a silver bullet for recycled content.
Instead, it should be seen as a potential complement to mechanical recycling for applications where mechanical recycling will not work, such as for degraded or contaminated plastics, or mixed fractions.
“The chemical recycling technologies employed must support circularity – not only in theory, but also in practice”
We believe that recycling, including chemical recycling, is necessary for the further development of a viable circular economy. However, the chemical recycling technologies employed must support circularity – not only in theory, but also in practice. Therefore, there are several important aspects to consider. These are the most essential ones:
1. Problematic content is removed
Material intended for circulation cannot have a problematic chemical content, since this will lead to further exposure to hazardous chemicals. Therefore, any recycling technologies employed in a circular economy must ensure that the content of the material poised for recycling is known and safe.
2. Recycling methods are sustainable long-term solutions
Targeted investments in recycling methods should focus on long-term solutions. They must be able to recycle different materials, and not be reliant on partial input of non-sustainable material. In addition, the methods should consider long-term climate effects and energy consumption.
3. Innovation is continuously supported
There will be no magic bullet, no one solution that solves everything. Therefore, it is important that the innovation in the field is broad and continuous, encompassing many different technologies and materials, including further development of existing recycling methods.
4. Segregation of recycled material should be the preferred option
The segregation model entails keeping the physical connection between the input and output of recycled material. This model is the preferred choice, in order to ensure transparency and credibility throughout the value chain, and to retain a level playing field for all technologies.
“A maintained physical connection between the input and output material is necessary, and the correct ratio of recycled content in the finished product should be accurately indicated”
The fact that several of the newly developed chemical recycling methods require the mixing of recycled material with virgin one – primarily fossil raw material – is problematic.
In order to reach “100% recycled content” (which is a frequent market claim today), allocation methods like mass balance must be employed. These methods make use of the loophole built into current certification schemes, not requiring a physical connection between input and output, and will lead to situations where the claim of recycled content for the final product is disconnected from the true recycled content.
Therefore, a maintained physical connection between the input and output material is necessary, and the correct ratio of recycled content in the finished product should be accurately indicated.
5. The book & claim model is not an option
The use of certificates for recycled material, as the book & claim model suggests, has many consequences making it unfit to apply to recycling technologies. The most problematic ones are:
- The possibility to call fuel production “recycling”.
- Products claimed to be made from recycled content that contain absolutely no recycled content whatsoever.