The benefits of chemical recycling are unproven


Chemical recycling, also known as “advanced” or “molecular” recycling, has been touted by many as the technology of the future since the 1950s. Today, as we face a monumental plastic waste crisis, chemical recycling is receiving more attention than ever. While mechanical recycling uses machines to break down plastic waste into flakes or pellets, chemical recycling (actually a collection of many technologies with many capabilities) breaks down the material even further—using heat, solvents, and enzymes to break down plastic waste into its molecular retransform building blocks. In theory, through chemical recycling, we could recycle many plastic products that were long thought to be “unrecyclable.” But whether chemical recycling benefits the environment in widespread practice has yet to be proven.

At best, chemical recycling could be used for items outside of traditional packaging materials, such as As textiles, are used. With the right environmental and social safeguards in place, chemical recycling could help reduce the burden of millions of tons of textile waste that end up in landfills each year.

But the worst-case scenario is that these technologies will undermine current recycling infrastructure and divert resources from an existing system that is in dire need of improvement and investment. It can also divert efforts from upstream solutions like reduction and reuse. Chemical recycling could provide an incentive to continue generating plastic waste by allowing companies to build new supply chains that depend on this waste as an input. We risk encouraging unnecessary plastic consumption as many companies eagerly seek ways to meet ambitious waste reduction commitments by 2025.

We risk encouraging unnecessary plastic consumption as many companies eagerly seek ways to meet ambitious waste reduction commitments by 2025.

Technologies like chemical recycling are neither good nor bad in and of themselves – it depends on how they are used and implemented. Chemical recycling technologies can expand the range of recyclable items, but their environmental performance remains unproven. For example,Closed Loop Partners found this out Greenhouse gas emissions from chemical recycling range from 22 percent to minus 44 percent for certain technologies compared to new plastic production from oil or natural gas, and it’s consistently more carbon-intensive than mechanical recycling. At scale, it is unclear whether chemical recycling would reduce emissions from the status quo. Additionally, Estimates from Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ that chemical recycling could replace just 5 percent of current demand for virgin plastic by 2040, raising the question – is it worth prioritizing the time and investment required to scale up?

Every minute the equivalent of a dump truck’s worth of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean – it’s clear we cannot recycle out of this growing plastic waste crisis. Rather than just focusing on recycling, which is one aspect of a complex materials system, we should prioritize solutions that support overall system change. For example, reducing our overall single-use plastic consumption and expanding reuse.

Ultimately, the plastic waste crisis is too complex to rely on a single innovation or intervention to save the day. Every moment counts and every dollar invested must be paid off, which is why we should only rely on new technologies when we know they are effectively contributing to the larger goal of systems – change. With plastic waste projected to triple by 2040, the stakes are too high to go wrong.


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