By Claire Arkin, Communications Coordinator As people around the world call for an end to plastic pollution, the plastic and petrochemical industry has seized upon a silver bullet solution: chemical recycling, or “advanced recycling.” This older, failed technology has been dusted off and breathlessly promoted in industry circles as the answer to plastic pollution, but the proof to back up these claims has been noticeably absent. What really is chemical recycling, and is it all that it’s cracked up to be? In short, the answer is no. A technical assessment and short briefing released today find that chemical recycling is polluting, bad for the climate, and has a track record of technical failures. Far from a promising solution to plastic waste, chemical recycling is a distraction, at best. Chemical recycling refers to a process that aims to turn plastic waste back into virgin quality (like new) plastic through some combination of heat, pressure, depleted oxygen, catalysts, and/or solvents. This differs from mechanical recycling, which essentially melts plastic waste and then turns it into pellets or flakes for further use. Sounds good so far, right?
chemical recycling is polluting, bad for the climate, and has a track record of technical failures. Far from a promising solution to plastic waste, chemical recycling is a distraction, at best.
more plastic waste is turned into greenhouse gas emissions than back into plastic.
The petrochemical industry has long depicted the viability of chemical recycling in rosily optimistic terms. However, current data suggests that this industry outlook is a far cry from the technology’s actual capabilities. In fact, there’s a disturbing lack of independent reporting or research on the subject of chemical recycling– most of what does exist is funded by the very industry that has a vested interest in the technology succeeding, and is based on lab studies, not real-world conditions. In fact, these technologies have an abysmal track record of technical and economic failures. As of 2017, the core technologies — known as pyrolysis and gasification — had wasted at least $2 billion of investments on canceled or failed projects. After all that, even if these projects do manage to produce some plastic, there is no market for it — with virgin plastic prices at rock bottom, expensive, energy-intensive technologies like chemical recycling just can’t compete.