Fixing plastic collection seen as vital to success of chemical recycling

Two billion people worldwide do not have access to proper waste collection services, leading to ever-growing plastic pollution in oceans and waterways, particularly in the global south.

To recycle all plastics by 2040, 500,000 people would need to be connected every day to waste collection services across the world, according to estimates.

Collecting used plastic is vital to create a circular economy in the industry and prevent fossil fuels from being used to produce new plastics.

In Europe, 30 million tonnes of plastic waste is collected every year. 85% of that goes to be incinerated or to landfill in a “waste of valuable resources,” according to Pierre Barthélemy from the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), an industry association.

EU member states “don’t have ideal enforcement conditions” or incentives for people to recycle, admitted Hans-Christian Eberl, a European Commission official.

The official admitted that the European Commission has struggled to improve waste collection in Europe, both because of EU member states’ autonomy on the matter and the complexity of the recycling process for consumers.

Without a more systematic and harmonised waste collection system across Europe, it will be hard to reach the EU’s target for 50% of plastic packaging recycling by 2025 and 55% by 2030, the Commission believes.

How plastic is collected and sorted is instrumental to achieve higher recycling rates.

The quantity and quality of recycled material will become more important as the Single-Use Plastics Directive requires companies to integrate at least 25% of recycled material into plastic bottles by 2025, increasing to 30% by 2030 in all beverage bottles.

To achieve those higher targets, some companies are betting on chemical recycling, which allows treating a wider diversity of plastic waste.

Recycled plastics are indeed currently seen as worthless by manufacturers who prefer higher-grade virgin materials that are both cheaper and safer because they are not tainted with “legacy” chemicals that are now banned in Europe.

Chemical recycling allows isolating toxic substances contained in some recycled plastics, making it possible to retrieve feedstocks that can be used to manufacture plastics which are as good as new.

But even though the technique is promising, chemical recycling is not a silver bullet, Eberl warned. It “has a place”, but is not “is not a solution in itself” to plastic pollution or CO2 emissions, he stressed.

The process also raises environmental concerns because it is energy intensive and releases carbon – both when the plastic is being cleaned or when it is burned when the feedstock is turned into a synthetic fuel.

Despite those reservations, chemical recycling is nevertheless seen as a key element of EU plans to meet higher recycling goals.

“I think we can all agree we won’t meet our recycling targets without chemical recycling,” said Yonathan Shiran, a circular economy expert at SYSTEMIQ, a sustainability consultancy.

That said, the processes are still fairly experimental and would need to address several issues before they can be scaled up.

First among those is the “uncertainty around real energy requirements,” said Shiran, who pointed to many unanswered questions regarding the carbon footprint of chemical recycling, the corresponding yields and whether feedstock collection is profitable.

Barthélemy disputed claims about energy consumption of the process, however, citing studies which found that chemical recycling emits 50% less carbon than simply incinerating the plastic. Indeed, many recycled plastics containing legacy chemicals often end up in landfill, or are incinerated to generate energy.