There are still too many questions about chemical recycling of plastics, including its carbon footprint and emissions, for it to be considered a viable solution to plastics waste problems, according to a new report.
The June 3 analysis from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives argues that industry has "grossly overstated" the feasibility of chemical recycling, which in general uses different processes to break plastics down into monomers to be reused as new plastic or turns it into fuels.
"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," Andrew Rollinson, one of the authors of the report, said.
"It represents a dangerous distraction from the need for governments to ban single-use and unnecessary plastics."
The report, which was partly financed by the Plastic Solutions Fund, also argues that chemical recycling technologies that turn the waste plastics into fuel should not properly be considered recycling, because they are only temporarily parking the fossil fuels in plastics products before burning them.
"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," said Neil Tangri, science and policy director at Berkeley, Calif.-based GAIA. "That's not recycling, that's just an expensive and convoluted way of burning fossil fuels."
The study said there's a "profound" lack of publicly available information on how such technologies work in real world conditions, and the authors urged governments to be cautious in deciding how to regulate and use them in waste management.
It said that chemical recycling has a large carbon footprint, particularly compared to traditional mechanical recycling, and that any toxins in plastics must still be dealt with in its processes. Industry officials have argued that the technology has significant economic potential, pointing to a 2019 report from the Closed Loop Partners that estimated a potential $120 billion market and that noted more than 40 companies either have commercial plants in the U.S. and Canada or plan to do so in the next two years.
As well, CLP said there's a lot of interest in the technology from consumer brand companies, as they face struggles to get enough materials to meet recycled content commitments for their packaging. But CLP also said that it did not think the technology development was moving fast enough, noting that it can take more than 15 years for such technologies to reach growth scale.
The American Chemistry Council said it believes chemical recycling, or advanced recycling as it calls it, has "tremendous promise" to help modernize plastics recycling. ACC said that there have been nearly $5 billion in announced investments in plastics recycling in the United States since China's import ban in 2017, with about 80 percent of that targeting advanced recycling.
"Rapidly emerging advanced recycling technologies are already converting a wide variety of traditionally non-recycled post-use plastics into useful fuels or specialty chemicals to make new plastics and other products," said Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets for ACC.
He pointed to investments from Agilyx in Oregon to convert recycled polystyrene into styrene monomer to make both new PS resin and jet fuel, as well as work by Saudi Basic Industries Corp. and Plastic Energy to take low value mixed plastics and turn them into new plastics. ACC also noted investments by Eastman Chemical Co. to convert used carpet to polyester and Shell Chemical to use pyrolysis oil as a feedstock for new chemicals.
Some of GAIA's conclusions echo a 2019 report by the European Commission. That review, conducted by EC's directorate of research and innovation, noted a lot of investment and research around chemical recycling, and said it had the "potential to bring clear benefit which complement mechanical recycling."
But the report, "A Circular Economy for Plastics," also said that the technology "should not be perceived as a silver bullet" for mixed or contaminated streams of waste plastics. It also said that the subset of chemical recycling technologies that turn plastics into fuel do not contribute to making a circular economy for polymers.
The January 2019 report highlighted technology developments by various companies but noted that none of them existed on commercial scale yet. And it noted economic challenges with the low cost of fossil fuel feed stocks for virgin plastics.
"With low fossil fuel prices, it is questionable whether chemical recycling can be competitive on its own," the EC report said.