Chemical recycling is setting itself up to be a very big player in the future. German consulting firm Ecoprog GmbH says that as of the end of 2021, there were more than 90 chemical recycling projects in various stages of development worldwide.
More than 20 plants were in operation, although, the study said, most were not commercial plants but mainly served to advance the knowledge of this technology.
Chemical recycling is a topic of controversial debate within the waste management sector. Supporters argue that in the future, chemical recycling will allow plastics of all kinds to be recycled without downcycling. The element various technologies have in common is that they enable the recovery of contaminated and mixed waste streams that currently cannot be recycled mechanically. That considerably expanda the range of potentially circular plastics.
Critics mainly find fault with the high CO2 emission rates associated with chemical recycling. They also fear that waste streams are being diverted from a more climate-friendly mechanical recycling process in order to be chemically processed.
Controversy aside, the chemical recycling space is a dynamic one, with the overwhelming majority of new projects in planning in Europe. This market development is being driven, said the study, by the potential to recycle a far broader range and quality of plastics combined with the various quotas and targets for recyclability and recycled content use.
However, for this to truly impact on these targets, chemical recycling must first be recognized in the waste hierarchy, the study points out. That is the move favored by the coalition German Traffic-light. Also, planned projects are not the same as executed projects, especially where investments of the magnitude needed for the realisation of a chemical recycling plant are concerned.
Moreover, challenges, such as high energy consumption and uncertainty regarding various technical issues, remain to be overcome. This relates in particular to the purification of the output from depolymerization, such as pyrolysis oil, from contaminants and additives. The discussion about the political classification of chemical recycling is other factor threatening to hinder its implementation.
Regardless, the report concludes that chemical recycling is "a potential key technology in the future production of plastics," able to generate "large market shares" in the coming years.
These technologies will mainly affect the business model of today’s raw materials producers and the mineral oil industry, which currently supplies the fossil-based building blocks for the plastics industry to these raw materials producers.
This explains the interest of these companies in chemical recycling and why they are the ones that are particularly active in exploring these technologies.
Other active players in the sector are waste management companies - who provide the waste material streams required - and start-ups, whose founding ideas relate to the technical aspects of the process.
"Trend Study – Chemical Recycling" by ecoprog examines the technical fundamentals, market factors, development status, plant inventory, projects and competition in the field of chemical recycling worldwide. The study is available at: www.ecoprog.de