On December 4, 2020, Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), a member of the Rethink Plastic Alliance (RPA), released a new report investigating the quality of life cycle assessment (LCA) studies assessing the environmental impacts of chemical recycling. The report voices concern over the current misuse of those LCAs for political decision making and calls for substantial improvement of study quality.
The latest ZWE report finds that chemical recycling technologies have been promoted to the public and policymakers as “being environmentally friendly, with claims that they can contribute to reducing environmental and climate impacts from plastic” by referring to such chemical recycling LCA studies.
To clarify these claims and better understand the environmental impacts of chemical recycling, this report reviews the four commonly cited chemical recycling LCA studies by BASF, Broeren et al. (2018), Eunomia (to be published), and Eunomia and CHEM Trust (FPF reported).
The key conclusion of the study is that businesses tend to present LCA results while neglecting the full context. Furthermore, the report identifies ten ways in which this set of investigated LCA studies use undisclosed datasets, flawed assumptions, and questionable accounting methods. The report explains that such approaches may provide misleading information on the environmental impact of chemical recycling technologies.
The authors of the report therefore provide a set of recommendations, including that:
- LCAs on chemical recycling should not be used for public communication or as a basis for decision making or investments, but rather as a tool to support wider discussions. Even then, policymakers should treat them with caution when interpreting the calculated environmental and climate impacts, especially of comparative studies.
- Substantial improvement of LCA studies on chemical recycling is necessary before new incentives are to be allocated by EU policies. They should be “more independent, transparent, comprehensive.” Furthermore, the authors pointed out that the results of an LCA should only be made public with the underlying raw data.
- Funding should only support plastic recycling processes with a proven lower carbon footprint than the production of plastic from the virgin feedstock.
Chemical recycling technologies, especially those regarding plastic-to-fuel approaches, have been criticized widely for their environmental impacts and labeled as promoting false promises of being environmentally and climate-friendly solutions (see GAIA’s report (FPF reported) and Greenpeace’s report (FPF reported).
According to the newly released ZWE report, even studies assessing environmental impacts of the more benign plastic-to-plastic technologies have to be treated with caution, as there is currently no large-scale chemical recycling process for plastic in operation. Furthermore, chemical recycling remains a very energy-intensive technology with no current approach to achieving a positive net balance. Most importantly, high-quality LCAs of these technologies have been identified as difficult to obtain due to missing data, and LCAs are generally seen as easy to misinterpret.
Zero Waste Europe (December 2020). “Understanding the Environmental Impacts of Chemical Recycling Ten concerns with existing life cycle assessments.” (pdf)
Sphera Solutions GmbH (2020). “Evaluation of Pyrolysis with LCA – 3 case studies.” (pdf) BASF
Broeren et al (2018). “Chemical Recycling Study. How great – and what will be – the opportunities for climate policy? CE Delft (pdf) Dutch
Eunomia (2020). “Plastics: Can Life Cycle Assessment Rise to the Challenge? How to critically assess LCA for policy making.” Eunomia and CHEM Trust