Chemical recycling and the circular economy

Huge progress is being made in terms of resource management and recycling, yet the calls to do more, accelerate progress, and become more efficient remain. Compared to metal, glass and building materials, the recycling rates for plastics aren’t increasing significantly.  One of the reasons cited is that there is still too much plastic being produced from virgin resources. Another is the broad spectrum of polymers in circulation and the complexities involved with sorting and mechanical recycling.

To address these two issues chemical recycling has been proposed. Some see it as a way to bridge the gap, accelerate recycling efforts and return more recycled plastics into the economy to be reused. Yet it remains a controversial subject.

Why is there such scepticism about chemical recycling?

Historically most chemical recycling facilities have been connected with petrochemical refineries. They’ve been accused of greenwashing, increasing pollution and promoting the use of fossil fuels. It could be this rhetoric that’s placing stumbling blocks in the development of more chemical recycling facilities.

From a public perception point of view, two of the major objections are that processes are energy intensive and cause toxic pollution. People are sceptical as to whether the technologies in place are effective in scrubbing harmful chemicals before being released into the atmosphere. The general public doesn’t have access to processing information and are more likely to believe a newspaper headline that claim emissions are toxic than read a scientific report detailing the process.  

This makes it difficult to get approval and even funding for new operations. Despite this, the UK government has invested millions in chemical recycling projects. Still, success has been hard to achieve. But then again, making in-roads into the ever-growing global plastic pollution problem is proving to be equally challenging.

While a historic view may not paint a positive picture for chemical recycling, it should not be entirely written off. Innovative processes are continually being engineered. Including the efficiency of processes coupled with an aim of reducing greenhouse gasses. As much as mechanical processes have advanced, too much plastic is still ending up in landfill, or, even worse, the oceans. Can chemical recycling contribute to a solution that will turn the tide on plastic pollution?

Chemical recycling possibilities worth investigating

Despite scepticism, several global organisations, including WWF, have been willing to share their stance on the subject. Chemical recycling should be explored, they say, as long as it aligns with the circular economy and does not add to emissions. It’s a tall order, given that most chemical recycling processes are energy intensive. However, with increased development of renewables, heat capture, and energy storage, innovative approaches to design could make chemical recycling a valuable part of the resource chain.

One of the arguments for chemical recycling is that it can shift the demand away from fossil fuels by recreating the materials needed for plastic products from plastic waste. This will remove plastic and its harmful effects on the environment and further circular goals by recycling resources already within the economy.

Technologies and methodologies are evolving, aiming to create polymers and similar building blocks that are equal in quality to virgin resources. In an ideal world that would go far to closing the loop in a circular economy.  But what are the challenges that remain to get there?

The plastics supply chain

One only has to look at the number and variety of products on a supermarket shelve to realise how many forms of plastic packaging exist. To date brands have designed with their own priorities in mind and a primary focus on differentiating themselves from competitors. This has added to plastic recycling challenges:

Not only increasing the complexities of having to recycle so many types of plastic. It also makes economies of scale harder to achieve. Matching the demand for specific polymers is more challenging as volumes can’t be concentrated on specific types. In the end this makes it harder to compete with virgin plastics and provides less incentive for manufacturers to switch to recycled plastics.

With the potential introduction of EPR this may shift the balance and create a stronger incentive for manufacturers to buy recycled plastics. The question is: with the increased demand, will chemical recycling then be able to scale up to meet the demand?

From a skills perspective it’s a great opportunity for those working with the resource sector to apply their knowledge of the industry and combine it with the expertise of others in terms of technology, engineering and chemical processing to create a solution that will have a place in the circular economy. At this point, with the need to accelerate recycling efforts, all avenues to be explored with an aim to making them more efficient and effective.