THE TIDE IS TURNING ON CHEMICAL “RECYCLING”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 16 MAY, 2023
- Basel Convention Parties Limit “Chemical Recycling” Mentions to Unadopted, Bracketed, Appended Text in Plastic Waste Management Guidelines
- Next Test Will Be At Global Plastics Treaty Negotiations
Geneva, Switzerland– This past Friday, May 12, the Parties to the Basel Convention adopted most of the text of updated technical guidelines for environmentally-sound plastic waste management. Despite intensive lobbying from the petrochemicals industry in the four years of negotiations to recognize what they call “chemical” or “advanced” “recycling,” as a solution to the plastics crisis, all that was obtained in the guidelines was mostly-unadopted, bracketed and appended text, instead of full inclusion.
These technologies have been shown to create more hazardous waste and pollution, massive carbon emissions, and enable further exponential plastic production, breaching our planetary boundaries. However, the petrochemicals industry has long pushed this process as a silver bullet solution instead of heeding calls to shift their business models away from throwaway products and packaging.
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was created to protect against abusive trade and mismanagement of hazardous waste. Its technical guidelines are intended to assist Parties manage wastes in an environmentally-sound manner, taking all practical steps to protect human health and the environment.
Virtually all of the guidelines text on chemical recycling was bracketed, and much of it moved to an appendix after countries failed to find evidence that chemical recycling is environmentally sound. The updated guidelines also include a new section on prevention, in a much-needed shift from the previous outdated version.
“Four years of petrochemical industry lobbying and all they could get was half-baked, flimsy, bracketed, appended and fundamentally non-approved text on so-called ‘chemical recycling’. I say ‘so-called’ because it is really a mismatched bundle of dubious and dirty technologies marketed as a solution to justify continued overproduction of plastics,” said Sirine Rached, GAIA plastics policy coordinator. “But governments are finally awakening to the reality that these technologies are neither innovative nor safe, and that more toxic and carbon emissions are the last thing we need when it comes to dealing with plastic waste,” she added.
This outcome serves as a bellwether for the upcoming global plastics treaty negotiations from May 29-June 2 (INC-2), where industry groups like CEFLEX (an industry group representing petrochemical majors like Dow, Chevron, and BASF), and the Plastics Industry Association and the US Chamber of Commerce have provided written submissions endorsing chemical recycling.
Some governments have even called for an outright ban on “chemical recycling” in the future plastics treaty, as referenced in an official document outlining options for future treaty obligations and control measures, prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Secretariat ahead of the Paris negotiations. The report prepared by UNEP ahead of the Basel Convention this month also raised concerns about the technical feasibility and toxicity of chemical “recycling” processes.
“Slowly but surely, Member States are seeing that the Emperor has no clothes–chemical ‘recycling’ has long been touted by industry as a miracle solution, but when one looks closely these claims simply do not hold up,” said Dr. Neil Tangri, Science and Policy Director at GAIA. “Thanks to the rigorous efforts of the scientific community and thorough investigations by media and environmental groups, the tide is turning.”
However, private consulting firms like McKinsey have continued to tout chemical “recycling” in reports provided to Member States to influence their decision-making, and there is reason to believe that such efforts will intensify in upcoming plastics treaty negotiations.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Dr. Tangri, “but the fact that chemical ‘recycling’ was relegated to an insignificant bracket in Geneva is a promising start.”
Recent independent investigations have found:
- Processing 1kg of plastic using chemical “recycling” requires nearly 7x the amount of fossil fuels needed to make a kg of virgin plastic.
- If a refinery turned waste into a fuel (what most “chemical recycling” facilities actually do) the air emissions would be so toxic that 1 out of 4 people exposed to it over a lifetime could get cancer.
- According to US government research, “chemical recycling” requires a significant amount of energy and emits greenhouse gasses and chemicals like benzene.
- According to Dow Chemical’s own study, “chemical recycling” caused more climate emissions than landfilling or burning plastic.
- Shell, Unilever, and Dow Chemical all have documented “chemical recycling” failures.
Claire Arkin | Global Communications Lead, GAIA
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GAIA is a worldwide alliance of more than 1,000 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries. With our work we aim to catalyze a global shift towards environmental justice by strengthening grassroots social movements that advance solutions to waste and pollution. We envision a just, zero waste world built on respect for ecological limits and community rights, where people are free from the burden of toxic pollution, and resources are sustainably conserved, not burned or dumped.