Fanning the flames of the controversy in the US about chemical recycling, a new report published by the environmentalist group Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) roundly rejects all claims that the technology represents a "silver bullet solution to the plastic crisis."
While the American Chemistry Council (ACC) says advanced recycling can complement mechanical recycling by diverting non-recyclable plastics away from landfills to create new products, including food-contact packaging, GAIA claims that in the U.S., it is more a front for plastics-to-fuel incineration than a technology for recycling plastics into plastics.
The report states that while millions of dollars have been invested in chemical recycling projects across the country, only 3 of the 37 facilities proposed in the U.S. since 2000 are currently operational. "None have been proven to successfully recover plastic to make new plastics on a commercial scale," the authors write.
The report also points to health and environmental hazards associated with plastic-to-fuel installations, such as increased exposure to hormone disrupters and carcinogens, while during the process, other chemicals may form and end up in the final product. Moreover, heavy metals cannot be destroyed during chemical processing and are therefore recombined into the final product or released in the waste by-products. The technology is also highly energy intensive.
According to this report, "the only thing PTF recycles is toxic chemicals."
Yet other reports — from Europe, for example — take a more measured view. And in striving towards a circular economy, innovative solutions for advanced sorting, chemical recycling and improved polymer design can have a powerful effect, the EU stated in its European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy.
CE Delft, a Dutch think tank, has published various reports on the role of chemical recycling in waste policies, which have found that, in the Netherlands, chemical recycling can make a substantial contribution to the goals of the Dutch government to reduce climate change impact and be an interesting addition to mechanical recycling. Looking at the four different technologies of gasification, pyrolysis, depolymerization and solvent-based extraction, they found that options that retain chemical structures (solvolysis, depolymerization) offer the highest CO2 reductions, rivaling mechanical recycling. Gasification and pyrolysis offer lower CO2 reductions and should be used, writes CE Delft, when other options are not feasible (e.g. mixed plastic waste).
As this report notes: ‘chemical recycling technologies are generally not fully commercialized yet. To stimulate their further development, a level playing field with mechanical recycling could be beneficial’.
GAIA, however, takes the opposite stance. According to Dr. Andrew Neil Rollinson, a chemical reactor engineer who co-authored a Technical Assessment of chemical recycling published by the organization, "sound engineering practice and common sense shows that chemical recycling is not the answer to society's problem of plastic waste."
“It represents a dangerous distraction from the need for governments to ban single-use and unnecessary plastics, while simultaneously locking society into a 'business as usual' future of more oil and gas consumption,'” he said.
Instead of pursuing technologies that are nothing short of dangerous tech-fixes, policymakers need to "fight climate change at the source, by pursuing policies that place limits on production and support zero waste systems," added Denise Patel, GAIA’s U.S. and Canada program director.