Top questions about Chemical Recycling

What are the benefits of chemical recycling? 

  • Gives value to otherwise unused plastic waste: Today, about 30 million tonnes of plastic waste are collected every year in Europe. However, 85% of that is still incinerated or sent to landfill. This is a waste of valuable resources. Chemical recycling can help to make a difference. It enables the recycling of contaminated and/or mixed plastic waste that cannot be recycled through mechanical recycling. An added benefit is the potential of chemical recycling to address – and separate – the so-called legacy chemicals and substances of very high concern (SVHC) that can be present in end-of-life plastic after multiple years of use.
  • Produces plastics of a similar quality to virgin feedstock: With chemical recycling plastic waste is recycled back into the production of new chemicals and plastics with a similar quality to those produced from virgin feedstock. This recycled plastic can therefore be used in high quality applications such as food packaging, refrigerator parts, and in parts used by the automobile sector.
  • Reduces the use of fossil resources:  Since chemically recycled plastic waste  can be re-used as secondary raw materials for the production of new plastics less newly extracted fossil resources will be needed. This will make Europe less dependent on carbon imports, as carbon-rich waste streams can be used as a readily available resource.
  • Reduces CO2 emissions: Chemical recycling can eliminate the emissions associated with incineration and conventional production of feedstock materials.

What are the challenges these technologies face? 

  • Supporting conditions: Chemical recycling requires an ecosystem that involves the full value chain and is supported by a policy framework that looks beyond the traditional boundaries of regions and Member States. To be successful, chemical recycling must be underpinned by a holistic enabling policy framework, an open investment environment and a competitive economic model. 
  • Scaling up: Chemical recycling processes (gasification, pyrolysis, and depolymerisation) exist at a demonstration level, at a smaller industrial size and require further innovation efforts before being rolled out for subsequent commercialisation (the Technology Readiness Level varies for different processes).To scale up, the following research and development needs to be considered: 
    • Integration into existing chemical plant operations including purification, either as feedstock or as monomer.  
    • Consistency of plastic waste input quality from the collection and sorting processes.  
    • Development of the business case for the chemical recycling of plastic waste. 

Why is the chemical industry developing chemical recycling of plastics? What is the benefit of chemical recycling vs plastics re-use or mechanical recycling?  

  • What mechanical recycling can do: Only 15% of the collected plastic waste in the EU currently finds its way back into the EU market. 85% is incinerated and sent to landfill as the plastic waste is often contaminated and/or mixed and thus cannot be handled by mechanical recycling which is currently the only recycling technology available at large scale. Mechanical recycling is effective in tackling “pure” plastic waste such as, for example, water bottles. But when it comes to recycling plastic waste with functional additives in it, chemical recycling could be a useful option.   
  • Benefits of chemical recycling: The chemical industry is determined to increase the amount of recycled plastic by scaling up the chemical recycling technology.  Chemical recycling can process mixed or contaminated plastic waste and break it down into valuable building blocks for new chemical products, including plastics. The cycle can be repeated all over again, which means that no plastic will need to end up in a landfill. 

Chemical recycling may lead to plastic waste becoming circular, but how sustainable is the process itself?  

  • Complementary recycling technologies: Chemical recycling is A, but not THE only solution for the circular economy and use for plastics. All recycling technologies will be needed as in a circular plastic economy recycling to achieve high recycling targets. Hence, the solution is not EITHER …OR but only AND…AND …AND. When possible mechanical recycling or dissolution recycling should be used. However, in cases where the plastic waste contains a mix of different plastics and/or is contaminated, chemical recycling will be an option. 
  • Positive Life Cycle Assessments (LCA): The first life cycle assessment approaches comparing chemical recycling to incineration are positive. As we continue to develop and scale-up chemical recycling, LCA studies should be initiated to measure environmental impacts.  

If chemical recycling is such a successful process, why has it not already been deployed on a large scale? 

  • Technologies have been developed, the next step is the business case: While the technologies have already been developed, the business case for chemical recycling technologies is only in the infancy and needs be further improved. To this end, Cefic calls for enabling conditions through innovation, scale-up to demonstration, policy frameworks, creating recycling-chains and establishing clear pathways to “valorise” plastic waste that is currently incinerated, landfilled or wasted. 
  • Risk-sharing approach: The chemical industry continues investing in research but we also recognise that many technologies that we would like to scale up (i.e. chemical recycling, CO2 valorisation) require a risk-sharing approach. This means that more public-private partnerships with authorities to share the risk in crossing the innovation’s “valley of death” and make sure these technologies can be successfully commercialised.   

Are you planning to import plastic waste into Europe? Doesn’t this add to the plastic waste issue? Would the transportation not increase the carbon footprint? How would you know the plastic waste is safe/recyclable? 

  • Stop plastic waste exports: Today, the EU is exporting post-consumer plastic waste for recycling. A priority should be to reduce, if not eliminate, these exports and use this as feedstock for chemical recycling plants in the EU.  
  • Single market for plastic waste: Cefic calls for a single and open market for plastic waste by taking a practical and harmonised approach to shipping plastic waste for use in recycling facilities within Europe and in future possibly also imported into Europe. We believe movement of plastic waste – destined to become secondary raw material – within Europe, will be essential to achieve the necessary economies of scale for chemical recycling to take off. For the operation of chemical recycling plants, it is important to have a sufficient quantity and quality of plastic waste; a stable and continuous supply of plastic waste; and, a sizeable collection area for plastic waste. 

Chemical recycling can process mixed or contaminated plastic waste. If this is the case, then why do chemical recycling plants need the plastic waste to be of a particular quality? 

  • Quality standards: With “particular quality” we refer to a known- or agreed quality, i.e., agreed vs. some plastic waste quality standard.  Where chemical recycling can handle a broad range of plastic wastes, the output (quality) of chemical recycling plants directly relates to the input quality, i.e., quality of the plastic waste. To guarantee some reasonable quality of the output, some assurances of plastics waste input need to be defined.