Chemical Recycling Technologies Needed to Achieve Circular Economy Goals, new study says

chemical plastic recycling

According to a new study by several researchers from  the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission and the University of Gent and Maastricht, Europe’s plastic recycling rate is low, and new technologies and strategies are necessary to increase circularity. Together with further innovation in mechanical recycling, chemical recycling technologies are expected to contribute to boosting plastic circularity, the study says.   

“We need more advanced recycling technologies next to other systemic views to achieve the quantitative targets and a qualitative  circular economy”, said Professor Steven De Meester, one of the authors of the study entitled “How much can chemical recycling contribute to plastic waste recycling in Europe? An assessment using material flow analysis modeling”.  

In Europe, the current end-of-life recycling rate is around 18%, which mainly comes from mechanical recycling. The study suggests that chemical and solvent-based recycling technologies, together with further improvements in mechanical recycling, could lead to an overall end-of-life recycling rate (to plastics and chemicals, excluding fuels) of up to 80% by 2030, with chemical recycling becoming complementary, not competitive, to improved mechanical recycling. The findings also suggest that capturing and treating “missing plastic”, i.e., plastic waste generated but currently not accounted for in statistics, when considered in one of the future scenarios, could significantly increase recycled plastic production and help reach recycled content targets in some sectors.  

To provide resources of equal quality to primary resources, the quality of recycling needs to be considered. This includes not only aspects such as yield and footprint but also the material properties and substitution potential. “Quality means the materials should be suitable for the circular economy and should be able to substitute primary resources over a broad range of applications,” explained De Meester.  

Scaling up Chemical Recycling Technologies 

The chemical industry has already announced major investments of commercial scale covering different chemical recycling technologies in Europe and worldwide. However, one of the main barriers to scaling up these technologies is uncertainty about the method for calculating the recycled content of plastics. A clear mass balance method is key to overcoming this challenge. Mass balance is one of the well-known and widely used “chain of custody” models that gives a high level of confidence that what is put in the process does come out at the end. It is already successfully deployed in other sectors, such as fairtrade cacao and coffee.  

EU rules supporting chemical recycling as a complementary solution to mechanical recycling are needed to attract investments into these technologies and help the EU meet targets for more recycled content.  

The findings of the researchers of the JRC and the University of Gent study should also be used by policymakers to support proposals for achievable recycled content targets and to determine which recycling technologies can play a role in achieving these targets. 

Recycled content targets can incentivise the uptake of recycled content, leveraging the power of Europe’s single market. 

In conclusion, mainstream technologies alone will not be sufficient to achieve circular economy goals, and advanced recycling technologies are necessary to provide resources of equal quality to primary resources, also starting from a broader set of waste feedstock types.