Two billion people worldwide do not have access to proper waste collection services, leading to ever-growing plastic pollution in oceans and waterways, particularly in the global south.
To recycle all plastics by 2040, 500,000 people would need to be connected every day to waste collection services across the world, according to estimates.
Collecting used plastic is vital to create a circular economy in the industry and prevent fossil fuels from being used to produce new plastics.
In Europe, only a third of post-consumer plastic waste is collected for recycling. 85% of that goes to be incinerated or to landfill in a “waste of valuable resources,” according to Pierre Barthélemy from the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), an industry association.
The official admitted that the European Commission has struggled to improve waste collection in Europe, both because of EU member states’ autonomy on the matter and the complexity of the recycling process for consumers.
Without a more systematic and harmonised waste collection system across Europe, it will be hard to reach the EU’s target for 50% of plastic packaging recycling by 2025 and 55% by 2030, the Commission believes.
How plastic is collected and sorted is instrumental to achieve higher recycling rates.
The quantity and quality of recycled material will become more important as the Single-Use Plastics Directive requires companies to integrate at least 25% of recycled material into plastic bottles by 2025, increasing to 30% by 2030 in all beverage bottles.
To achieve those higher targets, some companies are betting on chemical recycling, which allows treating a wider diversity of plastic waste.
Recycled plastics are indeed currently seen as worthless by manufacturers who prefer higher-grade virgin materials that are both cheaper and safer because they are not tainted with “legacy” chemicals that are now banned in Europe.
Chemical recycling allows isolating toxic substances contained in some recycled plastics, making it possible to retrieve feedstocks that can be used to manufacture plastics which are as good as new.
But even though the technique is promising, chemical recycling is not a silver bullet, Eberl warned. It “has a place”, but is not “is not a solution in itself” to plastic pollution or CO2 emissions, he stressed.
The process also raises environmental concerns because it is energy intensive and releases carbon – both when the plastic is being cleaned or when it is burned when the feedstock is turned into a synthetic fuel.
Despite those reservations, chemical recycling is nevertheless seen as a key element of EU plans to meet higher recycling goals.
“I think we can all agree we won’t meet our recycling targets without chemical recycling,” said Yonathan Shiran, a circular economy expert at SYSTEMIQ, a sustainability consultancy.
That said, the processes are still fairly experimental and would need to address several issues before they can be scaled up.
First among those is the “uncertainty around real energy requirements,” said Shiran, who pointed to many unanswered questions regarding the carbon footprint of chemical recycling, the corresponding yields and whether feedstock collection is profitable.
Barthélemy disputed claims about energy consumption of the process, however, citing studies which found that chemical recycling emits 50% less carbon than simply incinerating the plastic. Indeed, many recycled plastics containing legacy chemicals often end up in landfill, or are incinerated to generate energy.
Environmentalists still concerned
Another issue is how cheap virgin material is. Some chemical recycling processes are economical until the price of collection and sorting is applied, Shiran pointed out, saying countries need to provide incentives in order to make it viable.
For some environmentalists, meanwhile, the technique is an illusion. “We can’t really rely on chemical recycling as a way out of plastic pollution,” said Janek Vähk from Zero Waste Europe, saying policymakers must put the emphasis on reuse.
He repeated the issue environmental campaigners have with chemical recycling, saying it should only be referred to as such when the plastic is recycled into new plastics and not when it is transformed into a combustible fuel.
Chemical recycling is referred to very briefly in the European Commission’s new chemicals strategy, but the document emphasises it could only have a role “if they ensure an overall positive environmental and climate performance, from a full life cycle perspective”.
Eberl echoed this, saying: “The key issue with chemical recycling is the overall chemical footprint.”