As the petrochemical industry floods the world with plastic, it has firmly maintained that the answer to the problem of pollution caused by that product does not lie in reducing its production, but in investing in technological formulas for subsequent recycling. And one of them has become particularly fashionable. This is the so-called “chemical recycling”, a technique unique to plastics that breaks down polymer molecules into petrochemical raw material that can be used, among other things, to make new plastics. Or, in other words, to reverse the production process of plastics and return them to their original materials.
However, a recent scientific publication titled “Chemical Recycling: Status, Sustainability and Environmental Impacts” shows that the chemical recycling industry involve a multitude of technical, economic, and even environmental problems. The document concludes with such resounding findings as that chemical recycling releases toxic chemicals into the environment; leaves a large carbon footprint; still lacks a real demonstration that it works at scale; cannot compete in the marketplace and does not fit into the circular economy.
Chemical recycling releases
toxic chemical substances in the environment
Along these lines, the analysis carried out by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), the alliance that promotes environmental justice, maintains that the industry has “greatly exaggerated” the viability of chemical recycling, which generally uses different processes to break down plastics into monomers for reuse as new plastic or to transform them into fuels. While such a solution may seem ideal, sound engineering practice and common sense show that chemical recycling is not the answer to society’s problem of plastic waste, as mentioned by Andrew Rollinson, one of the authors of the report.
The study also argues that chemical recycling technologies that transform waste plastics into fuel should not be considered recycling because they are only temporarily parking fossil fuels in plastic products before burning them.
What is the future of chemical recycling?
Another report, produced by the European Commission’s Directorate for Research and Innovation in 2019, concluded that chemical recycling concentrated a significant percentage of investment and, highlighted that this technology had the “potential to bring clear benefits that complement mechanical recycling”.
In contrast, the report “A Circular Economy for Plastics” states that the technology “should not be perceived as a magic bullet” for mixed or contaminated plastic waste streams and assures that the subset of chemical recycling technologies that turn plastics into fuel do not contribute to a circular economy for polymers.
Chemical recycling technologies that transform plastics into fuel do not contribute to a circular economy for polymers
Therefore, the main problem is the “profound” lack of publicly available information on how these technologies work in real world conditions. Because, although there are experts who support that the viability of chemical recycling is a complementary option to mechanical recycling, the truth is that there are still too many unanswered questions about it to be considered a viable long-term solution to the problems of plastic waste. Particularly in a society, and at a time, when there is an urgent need to make the transition to a full circular economy with effectively tested solutions.