Workers sort plastic cups in a recycling facility in Bourg-Blanc, western France, on August 13, … [+]
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Chemical recycling is an environmental health risk and will not solve the plastic crisis, Zero Waste Europe says.
The technical assessment Chemical Recycling: Status, Sustainability and Environmental Impacts finds that chemical recycling so far has had more cons than pros.
Even with the most advanced plastic-to-plastic technologies available at present, very little of the waste plastic actually becomes new plastic. Most is lost in the process, so it cannot qualify to be part of a circular economy.
The author Dr Andrew Neil Rollinson, chemical engineer and specialist in alternative thermal conversion technologies, wrote that “proof of successful status (and failures) remains largely undisclosed outside of laboratory trials, and for the interested party much will be found in theory but little or no substance given to practice”.
The term “chemical recycling” includes various technologies that break down used plastic with some combination of heat, pressure, depleted oxygen, catalysts, and/or solvents into either fuel or building blocks for new plastic. For instance, pyrolysis and gasification use heat to break down plastic, with limited oxygen to prevent combustion. Other techniques are solvent-based, like solvolysis.
The report shows that pyrolysis and gasification, in particular, release toxic substances such as bisphenol-A, cadmium, benzene, brominated compounds, phthalates, lead, tin, antimony, and volatile organic compounds.
“For economic and regulatory reasons, chemical recycling operations are mostly likely to be collocated with existing petrochemical facilities,” the briefing explained. “This will further increase the environmental health impacts on communities that are already subject to disproportionate, cumulative environmental burdens.”
Further issues arise in relation to the viability of these processes. Critics are concerned because they can’t deal with mixed plastic polymers or black plastic and the current market conditions make it hard to compete with virgin plastic – all for a climate impact that is likely higher than producing plastics from scratch.
“My concern about chemical recycling is that it’s another end of pipe ‘solution’, instead we should address the plastic pollution upstream,” says Janek Vahk, who coordinates the Climate, Energy and Air Pollution Programme at the NGO Zero Waste Europe. “Market conditions don’t favor the production of recycled resins or plastic.”
There are already a few legislative proposals trying to address the issue. The Circular Plastic Alliance aims at reaching 10 millions tonnes of recycled content on the EU market by 2025, the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive requires to integrate 25% recycled plastic (recycled content) by 2025 in PET bottles and 30% by 2030 in all types beverage bottles and the EU Plastic Strategy aims to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030.
On the other hand, the Circular Economy Action Plan by the EU Commission says the it will support projects “exploring the potential of chemical recycling”. A Joint Research Center will start after the summer with a technical, economic and life cycle assessment of chemical recycling versus mechanical recycling and energy recovery of plastics.
Before better technologies will become effective, according to the paper, old mechanical recycling (made of melting and physical reshaping, among other steps) remains the best recycling option as it results in less toxins and a smaller carbon footprint.
The main effort is currently on reducing the use of plastic. Vahk adds that the chemical recycling hype should not divert the 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.
“At the moment and in the long term, the best option we have is to focus our policies on limiting the types of polymers that are out in the market. There are so many different types and many of them are simply not recyclable,” Vahk says. “We need to make the whole recycling more feasible. Right now, to expect that chemical recycling will be a solution is simply an illusion.”