According to a new technical analysis of chemical recycling by chemical engineers Andrew Neil Rollinson and Jumoke Oladejo for Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Berkeley, California, chemical recycling is polluting, energy-intensive and has a track record of technical failures. The report concludes it is impossible for chemical recycling to be a viable solution in the short window of time left to solve the plastic problem, especially at the scale needed.
“Instead of wasting time and money on flawed and potentially dangerous waste management approaches like chemical recycling, governments and financial institutions should prioritize initiatives that have been proven to work—those that reduce the amount of plastic produced,” GAIA says in a news release announcing the study.
According to the analysis:
- Chemical recycling is an environmental health risk. Plastics contain toxins, and heating plastics creates even more. All of those toxic substances must go somewhere—into the air, the water, and the final products. Pyrolysis, the most commonly used chemical recycling technology, produces more emissions than waste incineration.
- Industry has grossly overstated the feasibility of chemical recycling and understated its emissions. The lack of robust independent reporting and monitoring of chemical recycling facilities has led to it being portrayed well above and beyond its capabilities.
- Chemical recycling has a large carbon footprint and poses a climate risk. In the chemical recycling process, more plastics are turned into greenhouse gas emissions than back into plastics.
- Chemical recycling will not solve the plastic crisis. Even with the most advanced plastic-to-plastic technologies available at present, very little of end-of-life plastics actually become new plastics. Most is lost in the process, so it cannot qualify to be part of a circular economy.
Rollinson, chemical reactor engineer and specialist in alternative thermal conversion technologies and one of the authors of the report, says, “While such a solution may seem ideal, sound engineering practice and common sense shows that chemical recycling is not the answer to society's problem of plastic waste. It represents a dangerous distraction from the need for governments to ban single-use and unnecessary plastics while simultaneously locking society into a 'business as usual' future of more oil and gas consumption.”
Tangri, science and policy director at GAIA, adds, “There is a lot of talk about chemical recycling as the next wave of recycling, but most of these companies are just turning plastic into fuel to burn it. That’s not recycling, that’s just an expensive and convoluted way of burning fossil fuels. Even when they try to turn it back into plastic, most of the material is lost in the process. This is a dead-end technology.”
“Adopting costly and risky technologies such as chemical recycling doesn’t make sense for developing countries, especially in cities without basic waste management systems like segregated waste collection,” says Yobel Novian Putra, climate and clean energy associate, GAIA Asia Pacific. “Given the technical failures of chemical recycling outlined in the report, current proposals in the region to build plants for ‘hard-to-recycle’ plastic-like sachets will only lead us in the wrong direction. As we recover from the economic ravages of COVID-19, we must invest wisely in proven, common-sense solutions that will safeguard public health and a safe environment. Investing in zero waste systems is a cost-effective approach that addresses the problem at the source, creates good jobs and builds local economies and climate resilience for decades to come.”
Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets for the American Chemistry Council, Washington, has issued a statement in response to the GIAI analysis.
He states, “Scientists, businesses and nonprofit organizations around the world are excited about chemical recycling, also known as advanced recycling, because it increases the types and volumes of plastics that can be recycled and repurposed into useful products while helping to conserve resources such as energy and water.
“Closed Loop Partners, a firm that invests in the circular economy, recently found that advanced recycling technologies could help unlock a $120 billion market in the United States and Canada.
“Additionally, a recent peer-reviewed study by Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) found that pyrolysis, a common advanced recycling technology that converts plastics back into basic hydrocarbon building blocks, helps to reduce fossil fuel use by 96 percent and water use by 58 percent throughout a product’s life cycle. ANL also determined that 75 percent of plastics processed through pyrolysis were converted into liquid hydrocarbons, the feedstocks for new products such as new plastics, chemicals, waxes and ultra-low-sulfur transportation fuels.
“America’s plastics makers are committed to eliminating plastic waste and to optimizing the sustainability of our products and operations. We believe that advanced recycling will help to accelerate the modernization of plastics recycling in the United States and around the globe.”
Christman adds that emerging advanced recycling technologies are converting a variety of traditionally nonrecycled postuse plastics into fuels or specialty chemicals that are used to make new plastics and other products, including:
- Agilyx (Oregon) is converting used polystyrene (PS) into styrene, which Americas Styrenics (Texas) is using to make virgin-quality PS.
- Agilyx also is supplying feedstock to Monroe Energy (Pennsylvania) for Delta Airlines to use as jet fuel.
- In Tennessee, Eastman is converting used carpet into high-quality polyester.
- In Louisiana, Shell is using pyrolysis oil from Nexus (Georgia) as a feedstock for new chemicals.
- Brightmark is nearing completion of its first plastic conversion project (Indiana) that will divert 100,000 tons per year of mixed plastics from landfills, giving them renewed use in the form of liquids, waxes and fuels.
- In Europe, SABIC and Plastic Energy are converting low-value mixed plastics into new plastics used in food, beverage and home care packaging.
“Since China said it would stop importing mixed-used plastics in mid-2017, the private sector has announced nearly $5 billion in investments to modernize plastics recycling in the United States, roughly 80 percent of which is aimed at advanced recycling,” Christman says.