More Talk and No Action on Chemical Recycling

The American Chemistry Council is at it again

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Chemical recycling is just making fuel
Chemical recycling is just making fuel.


"Chemical recycling" is the term used by the petrochemical industries for the processes that they claim will make recycling great again. As an industry spokesperson said recently, "It's different this time...We are going to be able to make all of our new plastic out of existing municipal solid waste in plastic." We noted in an earlier post that a study by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives called it "all talk and no recycling." Now Greenpeace has issued a new report, "Deception by the Numbers," where they say that the "American Chemistry Council claims about chemical recycling investments fail to hold up to scrutiny" 

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has long been a bête noire of Treehugger, ever since they tried to get the LEED green building certification system banned because it tried to limit the use of plastics in buildings. They are tireless and effective lobbyists and promoters of the petrochemical industry and are still fighting for foam and other plastics. Now they are promoting chemical recycling as the solution to the recycling crisis, without really explaining what they are actually doing. They all talk about turning plastic back into feedstocks, and have hijacked the circular economy in the process. But according to Greenpeace, much of it is just waste-to-energy, which is just incineration with heat recovery. They call it "a bait-and-switch PR tactic meant to create the illusion of progress by industry."

“'The American Chemistry Council, the plastics industry, and the consumer goods sector need to stop hiding behind the fantasy of chemical recycling,' said Greenpeace USA Plastics Research Specialist Ivy Schlegel. 'Turning plastic into even more unneeded fuel is a bad investment and certainly should not be considered recycling. Many of the projects the industry promotes as chemical recycling are not even viable and are meant to give a false sense of progress on the pollution crisis.'"
ad for recycling

Greenpeace looked at the 52 projects and the $5.2 billion investment that the ACC touts as being chemical recycling and finds that much of it is literally smoke, and then mirrors. Some of the projects were standard mechanical recycling where plastic is chopped into pellets and downcycled (the famous bottle that wants to be a bench), more elaborate sorting, waste-to-fuel or plastics-to-fuel, which is controversial because the plastic is turned into a form of feedstock, but "should not be considered recycling, since those materials are ultimately combusted," and plastic to plastic, the ultimate fantasy. "All plastic-to-plastic projects on this list remain unproven, and all were all found to be of questionable viability."

They concluded that less than half of the projects can actually be described as recycling (they are just incineration or waste-to-fuel). The industry co-opted the language of the circular economy, "but upon investigation, these circular claims fall flat." From the report:

"This is a bait-and-switch, as the world is already awash in oil and gas, and more of it is not needed. In fact, virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic precisely because the fossil fuels used to produce it are so plentiful. There is no evidence that the marketing of the fuels generated from the burning of waste actually reduces oil and gas exploration or production, or demand for virgin plastic resin. Plastic-to-fuel does not solve a plastic production problem, but instead aims to solve a waste management problem. It should be underscored that waste-to-fuel and plastic-to-fuel are not 'recycling'; rather, they are material destruction."

Greenpeace confirms our suspicions that the processes involved in chemical recycling have their own massive carbon footprint. "Evidence on mature technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis shows both that they are energy-intensive, as is the polymerization process to make new plastic, and that the chemical conversion itself generates significant quantities of carbon dioxide."

The fundamental problem that we always return to is that the point of all this is to convince people that recycling actually works, that we can all feel good about buying stuff made from plastic because it's not just going to go into the ocean or the landfill, but will be turned back into something even better than a bench. People want to feel good about recycling, having been convinced that it is the greenest of virtues. Chemical recycling fills the bill. Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, as Greenpeace notes:

“'Chemical recycling' projects may be more likely than petrochemical projects to be approved for regulatory relief or public funding, as they carry an aura of 'green' and 'circular,' precisely because they are considered recycling. In many ways, 'chemical recycling' is similar to 'clean coal' or carbon capture and storage: a vaguely defined false solution promoted by the industry."

There are many wonderful things made from plastics, and we will never entirely get rid of single-use plastics. But we shouldn't encourage their use, and that's what phony feel-good recycling does. Just calling it "chemical recycling" doesn't change the fact that somebody has to pay for all of this, and it is usually the taxpayer. That's why we call for a deposit on everything and producer responsibility, not this fantasy.

Download the Greenpeace report here.