Study Finds That 'Chemical Recycling' Is All Talk and No Recycling

The companies that say they are doing it are just burning or burying it.

Waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen
Waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen (not chemical recycling).

Lloyd Alter

"Chemical Recycling" is the petrochemical industry's latest response to the recycling crisis. It is a recycling process where plastic waste is processed into fuels or back into the chemical building blocks that plastics are made of. It's key to the circular economy where there is no such thing as waste, just feedstock for new plastics. The House of Representatives' "Congressional Action Plan For a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America" thinks it's a great idea, saying "Federal policies should also promote the transition to a circular economy, which aims to keep resources in a closed cycle and to eliminate waste and pollution."

Treehugger has been critical of the concepts of chemical recycling and whether it fits in the circular economy; My colleague Katherine Martinko has written that "Companies Are Promoting False Solutions to Plastic Waste" and I described "How the Plastics Industry Is Hijacking the Circular Economy."

Now a new report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (with the clever acronym GAIA) looked at what chemical recycling is actually being done, and finds that it's "All talk and no recycling."

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

GAIA looked at the 37 chemical recycling facilities proposed since the 2000s and found that only three were actually operating, and found that none of them were actually recovering plastic in any way that could be considered "circular." Instead, they are pushing "plastic to fuel" (PTF) using pyrolysis or gasification, and just burning the stuff.

Some might say that PTF is a good thing because that's kind of what plastic is, a solid fossil fuel, so we are getting double use out of it, but that's not the case, primarily because "PTF carries a large carbon footprint that is not compatible with a climate-safe future. It only adds to global carbon emissions created by the fossil fuel industry."

This makes a lot of sense, considering that one has to use fuel and resources to pick the stuff up, process it, cook it, and then burn it. Making PTF is also toxic.

Plastic often contains toxic additives and contaminants that are known to be harmful to human health and are not effectively filtered out from the “chemical recycling” process or may form during the process, risking exposure to workers, communities near facilities, consumers, and the environment. For example, hormone disruptors and carcinogens such as bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalates, benzene, brominated compounds, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in plastic and not effectively filtered out from end-products including fuel. Depending on the type of plastic being processed, other chemicals may form and end up in the final product, such as benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, hydrogen cyanide, PBDEs, PAHs, and high-temperature tars, among many others.

What it is really doing is making waste plastic disappear, which is the entire point of the exercise, so that they can keep making new plastic in all their new petrochemical plants. New plastic is cheaper and easier to use, and the industry has spent 60 years making the old stuff disappear.

First, they had to teach us to pick it up with "Don't be a Litterbug" campaigns. When the dumps started filling up they had to teach us that recycling was a cardinal virtue. Now that recycling has been exposed as a sham, the industry is, as GAIA notes, "grasping at straws to save itself."

The petrochemical industry has pushed back on plastic bans and other policies to curb plastic use,46 even exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to tout single-use plastic as safer and more hygienic than plastic alternatives. Meanwhile, many petrochemical companies point to PTD and "chemical recycling" as key solutions to the plastic waste crisis and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Dow, Shell, and others give financial backing to projects like Hefty EnergyBag.
Amager Bakke Waste to Energy
Amager Bakke Waste to Energy.  Lloyd Alter

As we have noted before, chemical recycling is being sold as part of the circular economy, but it's not actually happening and it probably never will; the economics of it are hopeless. You would be better off just burning it directly as they do in Scandinavia, but then you would have to put the incinerators in the middle of town so that you could use the heat, you would have to hire Bjarke, and you would have to justify a fuel that puts out more CO2 per tonne than burning coal. As Gaia concludes:

As policymakers push industry to move away from fossil fuels and plastic, the future of the plastic-to-fuel industry is at best questionable and at most a distraction from addressing the root cause of the world’s plastic waste crisis. The “chemical recycling” industry has struggled with decades of technological difficulties and poses an unnecessary risk to the environment and health and a financially risky future that is incompatible with a climate-safe future and circular economy. 

Chemical recycling, at least as is happening now, is just an elaborate and expensive version of waste-to-energy. There is no point, other than it makes waste disappear. Given the amount of CO2 it generates, from a climate point of view, we would be better off just burying it, and we are not going back there. The only real way to deal with this is to stop making so much of the stuff in the first place, to reuse and to refill, and to go truly circular.