Chemical Recycling: Making Plastics Circular

Welcome to the European Chemical Industry ‘Virtual Exhibition on Chemical Recycling’

In Europe, about 30 million tonnes of plastic waste is collected every year. Still, 84% of that is incinerated, exported or sent to landfill. This is not only a source of CO2 emissions but is also a waste of valuable resources. The chemical industry is determined to change this. How? With chemical recycling technologies, the industry has developed complementary solutions to existing mechanical recycling to recycle mixed or contaminated plastic waste that otherwise would be incinerated, hard-to-recycle, or sent to landfill.

While mechanical recycling involves processing plastic waste into secondary raw materials or products without significantly altering the material’s chemical structure, chemical recycling converts polymeric waste back into secondary raw materials or recycled feedstocks, reducing the need for virgin fossil resources.This process changes the structure of the polymeric waste and transforms it into chemical building blocks, including monomers, which can then be used once more as raw materials in chemical processes. Chemical recycling includes processes such as gasification, pyrolysis, and depolymerisation.

Together with value chain partners, the chemical industry has already successfully developed consumer products like food packaging, refrigerator parts, mattresses, carpets, and dashboards in cars.  It is currently investing in chemical recycling capabilities. Major investments of commercial scale have already been announced, covering different chemical recycling technologies.

For more investments to take off, clarity about the use of a mass balance chain of custody method to calculate the recycled content of plastics in products is required. This methodology is needed to allow for a smooth and rapid transition to leverage recycled feedstocks in existing infrastructure, together with the virgin fossil sourced feedstock. As the two different feedstocks cannot be physically separated once they are co-fed into the complex large-scale installations, the mass balance methodology is then necessary to accurately calculate and verify the amount of recycled content allocated to products. It is already successfully deployed in other sectors, including biofuels, cocoa and coffee. 

Discover how chemical recycling technologies make plastics circular and explore Cefic’s members’ concrete examples

The infographic shows how chemical recycling technologies can help to move from a linear plastic economy (produce – use – dispose) to a circular one (cradle-to-cradle). Complementing mechanical recycling, ‘Dissolution’, ‘Depolymerisation’ and ‘Conversion’ are new recycling routes that can handle the plastic waste that would otherwise be disposed. They transform plastic waste into secondary raw materials that can be reintroduced at different steps of the plastic production process.

Click on any of the new recycling routes to learn more about each of the technologies and discover companies concrete examples on chemical recycling.

What are the new recycling routes that complement mechanical recycling?

To transition from a linear to a circular economy, it’s essential to explorecomplementary recycling routes alongside mechanical recycling. It includes:

  • Depolymerisation: It is a method that breaks plastics down into their fundamental building blocks.
  • Conversion: Another approach is converting plastic waste into useful raw materials. For instance, this can involve transforming plastic waste into oil and gas feedstock.

Achieving a circular economy for plastic: from a ‘waste-orientated’ to a ‘resource-orientated’ economy

By implementing chemical recycling technologies at scale in Europe, the chemical industry can increase resource efficiency and help to close the loop in the transition to a circular economy for plastics. Today’s worthless plastic waste would become economically attractive to recycle, thanks to the ways chemical recycling can turn it into valuable secondary raw materials. We believe this will accelerate the shift from a ‘waste-orientated’ to a ‘resource-orientated’ economy helping to create a true single market for secondary raw materials. It will make Europe less dependent on carbon imports, as carbon-rich waste streams can be used as a readily available resource.

Positive environmental footprint: chemical recycling helps to reduce landfill and the leakage of plastics into the environment

Globally, chemical recycling is an important mean to fight the leakage of plastic waste into the environment, especially the littering of our oceans. Chemical recycling has an overall lower carbon footprint compared to today’s end-of-life practices of incineration and landfilling. A Cefic-Quantis LCA report found that chemical recycling (pyrolysis) of mixed plastic waste emits less CO2 than incineration of the same waste.   

According to a report published by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre “Environmental and economic assessment of plastic waste – A comparison of mechanical, physical, chemical recycling and energy recovery of plastic waste”, from a climate change perspective and based on Life Cycle Assessments (LCA), the preferred management option for plastic waste is recycling (mechanical, physical or chemical). Recycling (mechanical, physical or chemical) is preferable to energy recovery (incineration). As the European energy mix will get cleaner, the gap between recycling and energy recovery will further increase in favour of recycling, the study concludes. 

Disclaimer: Our “virtual exhibition on chemical recycling” is a living section. It is updated sporadicallywith the support and contribution of Cefic members. This section is based on publicly announced industrial projects. Any questions on a specific project should be directed to the companies involved.The exhibition is not an exhaustive list and does not feature every single initiative and project planned, started and/or executed by the chemical sector in the area of chemical recycling. If you would like to contribute and add your case studies to the exhibition, please get in touch with Marina Mendes ( or Rowan Houben (