A new report entitled Chemical Recycling - Status, Trends and Challenges released by Germany’s nova Institute offers an in-depth and comprehensive overview of today’s chemical recycling market.
The authors explore the various technologies currently available that fall within the category of chemical recycling. They include background data on the progress of the different projects, and the investment and collaboration partners involved. This information is provided against the backdrop of the waste policy in the European Union.
Chemical recycling, they write, is fast moving into focus as providing a solution to boost recycling rates for waste that is unable to be mechanically recycled. Proponents view the new technologies as a way to achieve a fully closed circular economy of plastics and carbon and to meet the conditions set out in the European Green Deal. They see chemical recycling as effectively complementing mechanical recycling as it provides a recycling solution for plastic waste that hitherto was either burned or landfilled - mixed waste streams, strongly contaminated plastic waste, multi-layer materials, and the like. Moreover mechanical recycling does not yield the volumes of high-quality recyclate needed to replace virgin plastic on a large scale.
Chemical recycling yields recycled materials that are near-virgin in quality. Hence a combination of chemical and more traditional recycling methods have the potential to reshape the entire plastics
By contrast, critics of these technologies point to the immaturity of the technologies and the wide uncertainty ranges of existing assessments.
They also argue that it is unclear which chemical recycling options really work for specific waste fractions, in terms of their technological, economic and ecological aspects. What is the ‘right’ policy framework to be put in place to regulate the sector? Others argue that as chemical recycling technologies are still in an early stage of industrial development, they will in future likely be hampered by the same waste-specific issues that mechanical recycling processes are facing.
Indeed, mechanical recycling would currently appear to offer advantages - both economic and ecological - over chemical recycling, simply because less complex process environments and additive extensive recycling methods are used. Further research and time is needed for a more comprehensive assessment.
At present, however, the initial life cycle assessments available show that various chemical recycling routes result in almost the same reduction in GHG emissions as mechanical recycling. However, since no commercial plants exist yet, the LCAs are still based on assumptions for scaling-up; reliable results can only be achieved by evaluating realised larger-scale plants.
According to this report from nova Institute, an increasing number of companies also wish to move away from fossil carbon, however, to do so sources of alternative carbon sources or “renewable carbon must be available. Chemical recycling, say the authors, ‘unlock plastic waste as a source of renewable carbon for the chemical and polymer industry, according to the definition of renewable carbon by nova-Insitute and the Renewable Carbon Initiative. To establish chemical recycling could potentially be the most important step towards a renewable carbon economy, they write.
Also, more is needed than technological developments alone: political framework conditions also play a central role in how quickly chemical recycling is actually implemented, as only clear, stable, consistent, and favourable framework conditions offer security for investments.