Chemical recycling isn’t the miracle solution it is made out to be
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Chemical recycling isn’t the miracle solution it is made out to be

Up until recently, not many had even heard about chemical recycling – now everyone is talking about it. This new buzzword has been portrayed as the solution to all our plastic recycling problems, but what does it actually mean?

First of all, the current debate on chemical recycling centers on recycling plastic waste. Nowadays, plastic material is found everywhere, not only in products but also in our environment, most notably in our oceans with reports predicting that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

359 million tonnes of plastic were produced in the world last year alone and, unfortunately, a large amount of plastic material is burned or goes into landfills because it cannot be recycled. To get a handle on the problem, we need to rethink the way we produce and use plastics as well as find a way to improve recyclability and increase plastic recycling.

Proponents of chemical plastic recycling argue that this is where the novel method has a role to play.

While the more traditional mechanical recycling recycles plastic waste into “new” raw materials without changing the basic structure of the material, chemical recycling breaks the plastic waste down to molecular level in order to produce “new” material from its building blocks.

But chemical recycling is not one single method of recycling, as many would think. Instead, it’s usually divided into three different technologies characterized by the level at which they break down the plastic.

“We need to rethink the way we use plastics and find a way to improve recyclability”

These are:

  • Purification – a process that involves dissolving the plastic in a solvent and then separating and purifying the mixture to extract additives and dyes to ultimately obtain a “purified” material.
  • Decomposition – a process that involves breaking the molecular bonds of the material to recover the simple molecules from which the plastic is made.
  • Conversion – a process similar to decomposition, but breaks the material into even simpler molecules. This process is very energy-intensive.

These technologies offer ways to recycle material that mechanical recycling is not able to. While the latter is a well-established industrial process that is on the rise in Europe, it does come with some disadvantages.

It needs clean and homogenous waste streams and cannot recycle plastic that is too degraded, too complex or contaminated with hazardous chemicals – which is unfortunately often the case. In this aspect, chemical recycling could have a role to play since its technologies are better suited to recycle such plastic waste.

But chemical recycling is an industry still in its infancy and should definitely not be regarded as the one and only solution to all our recycling problems. A recent study from Zero Waste Europe found that it will take up to ten years to get chemical recycling working at industrial scale and that there are still too many unknowns when it comes to environmental impacts to rely on these technologies to solve the problem of plastic waste.

The best way to deal with the problem is to do things right from the beginning.

“Creating clean waste streams is key for a circular economy to work”

Instead of focusing on removing contaminants in the recycling process, they should be designed out of the material right at the start. This includes removing hazardous chemicals as well as purposefully designing the material to eventually be recycled. Creating clean waste streams is key for a circular economy to work.

A dark cloud hanging over chemical recycling is the fact that one of the technologies (conversion) can be used to produce fuel from the plastic waste. This could have serious effects on the environment and the plastic economy as a whole and cannot be overlooked.

For starters, turning plastic into fuel does not reduce the demand for virgin plastic but instead undermines efforts to reduce it. It also undermines the development of sustainable alternatives and incentives to phase out non-recyclable plastics. One wonders how this would affect the EU goal of having only reusable or easily recyclable plastic packaging on the market by 2030.

And what about the Paris Agreement?

Plastic is today made almost exclusively from petrochemicals, which makes plastic-derived fuels a form of fossil fuel. Producing fuel from plastic would therefore mean opening new windows to continue emitting CO2 even though we really should be closing them.

Chemical recycling is definitely an interesting method and can be a complement when mechanical recycling is not an option, but it’s not the miracle solution it has been made out to be.

The solution to plastic pollution is not found in the waste phase, but rather in the design phase. And, of course, in society reducing today’s rampant consumption of plastic products.