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Chemical Industry

Mass balance, or just creative bookkeeping?

No matter where you turn in the world of chemical policy, there it is — mass balance. The discussion revolves around claims of product content but, in reality, it just seems to be a very elaborate creative accounting system. Just look at the new proposal for PET bottles.

Published on 17 May 2023

Right now, it’s PET bottles. You’ve also heard it being mentioned together with Green Claims and ISO standards. Earlier this spring, there was talk about mass balance in the Transition Pathway for the chemical industry. Novel food contact materials, the EU taxonomy — you name it. Mass balance is everywhere.

What is it about?

The mass balance debate centers around what you can and cannot claim that your product contains. In our field, the discussion is about how to calculate recycled content from non-mechanical recycling methods (often referred to as chemical recycling).

Some say it’s complicated, but it isn’t. It’s actually pretty straightforward. It all boils down to the fact that you shouldn’t be able to say that your product is something that it is not. Many consumer brands think so too.

“Sort of like doing taxes without rules on what you can deduct”

But don’t just take our word for it, have a look at what the brands themselves say about it.

Let’s say you’re in the store buying a tooth brush. If two of them claim to be made from recycled material, then both of them should in fact be made from recycled material, right?

Nope, not according to the some applications of the mass balance principle. You are free to allocate your recycled material as you wish and claim recycled material where there aren’t any.

Let’s get creative!

Loud mass balance proponents tend to push for extremely flexible regulation — if any — saying it would benefit industry. Sort of like the fact that doing taxes without rules on what you can deduct would enable people to make more money (at least the very creative ones).

Take the recent example with PET bottles. Mechanical PET bottle recycling works great. In fact, it’s so efficient that many times buying recycled PET is more expensive than virgin PET  since recycled plastics are more sought after.

“Some technologies cannot make money on recycled materials without this creative bookkeeping“

The proposal from the EU Commissionrecognises this fact. But, it also says there are plans to open up for other types of materials where the recycled material doesn’t actually have to be recycled at all. Or at least with very liberal rules regarding claims.

How is this even possible? Well, it’s because some technologies cannot make money on recycled materials without this creative bookkeeping.

But if legislation opens this door, it would seriously tilt what’s supposed to be a level playing field against the ones trying to be honest about the recycled content.

Three reasons we’re against flexible mass balance in PET bottles

First of all, it’s not truthful and not in any way more sustainable.  Reason number two is that it seriously threatens the one and only circular plastic material cycle that really works well. And thirdly — and perhaps most importantly — because this proposal will act as a blueprint for all similar initiatives coming up.

Opening the door for flexible mass balance means disfavouring the real solutions out there, the ones that can have a successful business without a creative accounting system. Whether it’s PET or something else, we should stay away from creative bookkeeping that misleads consumers.