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NGOs: Chemical Recycling is NOT the Answer

Updated: Nov 2

A recent report by Plastics Europe paints a scenario where by 2050, making plastics using chemical recycled feedstocks will be a more efficient process than fossil-based plastics production and it will be widely used in a "circular economy." However two recent reports published by NGOs paint advanced recycling technology in a negative light.

A Beyond Plastics report entitled Chemical Recycling: A Dangerous Deception, describes chemical recycling as a "inefficient, energy-intensive, and contributes to climate change," adding, "Chemical recycling creates large amounts of toxic waste, and is dangerous and dirty."

A second report from Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) questions whether pyrolysis oil from chemical recycling is even pure enough to be widely used as a polymer feedstock. ZWE is a European network of communities, organizations, local leaders, experts, and change agents working towards the elimination of waste in society.

ZWE's recently published 60-page report entitled "Leaky loop “recycling” A technical correction on the quality of pyrolysis oil made from plastic waste," questions the viability of pyrolysis oil obtained via chemical recycling as a solution to achieving circularity in plastics.

Specifically, the report posits that the contaminant levels of pyrolysis oil that include nitrogen, oxygen, chlorine, bromine, and other remnants of plastic additives mean it would have to be blended in a ratio of 5–20% with 80–95% petroleum naphtha in order to counter contaminants.

Switching gear, the dire prediction of the report is that: "Based on the oil yields and contaminant dilution ratios reported in this review, in all cases over 99.9 % of the steam cracker input will need to be virgin fossil-based petroleum naphtha, something that society must desperately avoid using in the future. In other words, even in the best case scenario only 2% of the plastic waste fed into pyrolysis will actually make the round trip into the steam cracker and at worst less than 1% of plastic will be recycled and then, effectively, be recycled."

In summary, the report states" All studies clearly show that pyrolysis is not a future proof ‘chemical recycling’ technique capable of managing difficult-to-recycle plastic waste streams, as many industry claims suggest. Only a very narrow range of well-sorted and clean plastics are desirable and even this is proving difficult. Highly mixed, unwashed or difficult-to-recycle plastic waste streams such as automotive shredder residue (ASR) and computer casings result in a pyrolysis oil with substantially increased levels of contamination."

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