As the development of chemical recycling technology moves ahead, its position in the recycling world is still somewhat unclear. Issues such as the classification of the output products – recyclates? monomers? fuel? – need dealing with, as do various environmental and economic considerations.
Analyses are needed to assess the cost and the carbon footprint compared to mechanical recycling – at least this is what the European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD) writes in a position paper on chemical recycling published in December 2019.
“To date, it is not clear whether the promoted technologies are environmentally and economically advantageous compared to mechanical recycling,” said FEAD.
FEAD also argues that in order to create a level playing field between chemical and mechanical recycling, chemical recycling installations have to be classified as waste treatment plants and consequently comply with the relevant legislation on waste.
Moreover, there is no cause, according to FEAD to change the definition of recycling contained in the Waste Framework Directive, as it appropriately addresses chemical recycling in its current definition. This standpoint is welcomed by Chemical Recycling Europe, the organisation launched in 2019 to represent the interest of the European chemical recycling industry. In line with that definition, use of the output as fuels automatically falls under the energy recovery level in the waste hierarchy.
ChemRecEurope, however, is less happy about what it sees as ‘unjustified statements regarding the impact of chemical recycling and its feasibility at industrial scale’.
“Many large industrial plants have been announced and are in the pipeline in Europe with global partners, which would not have associated their names nor put chemical recycling as key to their strategic direction if they did not believe in the feasibility at industrial scale,” says the organisation.
It also points to the need for a more holistic LCA, as CO2 footprint is not enough to assess the full impact of chemical recycling, as this fails to take into account such factors as the difference in quality and value of the recyclate produced by the different recycling methods.
Different feedstocks in, different products out complicate comparisons between the two technologies. Chemical recycling tackles issues that mechanical recycling cannot address without additional cleaning/washing steps and a thorough separation by polymer types , which is often not possible or too costly.
“Their LCA are therefore not directly comparable as they address different problem waste streams (input) and different demands (output), that are very much complementary,” says ChemRecEurope.
The organisation emphasises that protecting consumer health and the environment is a ‘key strategic goal’. Secondary raw materials leaving the recycling plant should be in compliance with the relevant legal provisions such as REACH or waste legislation. “However, there is a lack of alignment between waste and product legislation that needs to be clarified,” it points out. Strong collaboration with the entire plastic value chain Is crucial if the recycling targets set by the EU are to be achieved.
“The waste management sector has a key role to play in this chain and we therefore call for a constructive collaboration to enable the development of new solutions, such as chemical recycling, to reach these goals,” said ChemRecEurope.