On December 9, 2020, civil society organization CHEMTrust announced the publication of a new report investigating the development of chemical recycling technologies aimed at recycling plastics. Written by environmental consultancy Eunomia, the report focuses on understanding the performance and operating requirements for three general types of chemical recycling technologies: solvent purification, chemical depolymerization, and thermal depolymerization. For each technology, it investigates specifically the input material type, energy use, fate of hazardous chemicals present, use or generation of hazardous chemicals, amount of input material actually recycled, and a comparison with the performance and cost of recycling the material mechanically.
CHEMTrust comments that the investigation reveals “that these technologies in reality have major problems, including substantial energy use, a need for pre-sorted, good quality plastic input and concerns over hazardous chemicals.” The report itself emphasizes that key conclusions include that there “is a general lack of transparency or robust evidence base that can be used to verify claims or generate firm conclusions around the viability of many technologies” that were reviewed. It attributes this to the large number of small, lab-scale operations “that demonstrate possibility rather than viability.” The currently strong competition between recycling technology developers to be first on the market is also thought to be discouraging the release of information to the public. Eunomia argues that therefore “caution must be exercised as a lack of evidence can mean either a knowledge gap or that the answer is less favorable.” It identifies “an urgent need for more transparency within the chemical recycling industry.”
While the evidence seems to exist that at least some of the technologies reviewed could be promising, “important details around mass flows, chemical use and the viability of the processes in real-life waste management circumstances are largely incomplete.” The authors recommend that any investment into individual companies should be provided only to those that agree “to improve the understanding around these missing elements.”
This report follows the publication of other reports earlier this year by civil society organizations critically reviewing chemical recycling, including by GAIA (FPF reported here and here), Greenpeace (FPF reported), and Zero Waste Europe (FPF reported).
ZWE (January 20, 2021). “Chemical Recycling: underwhelming and oversold.”
Michael Warhurst (December 9, 2020). “Chemical recycling: Is it worth the energy?”
Eunomia (December 9, 2020). “Chemical Recycling: State of Play.” (pdf)