When the EU Circular Economy Action Plan was published in Spring 2020, the Commission’s intentions to revolutionise the European waste policy according to the credo of “less waste, more value” alarmed the waste management sector. While the recycling industry strives to improve efficiency and increase recycling rates, a rise in the complexity and contamination of plastics increasingly complicates the recycling process. With less than 20% of all plastics being recycling worldwide, it seems like mechanical recycling has indeed reached its limits. But there’s hope: Chemical recycling. Can it fix the plastics problem?
Sounds complicated? Is complicated! Chemical recycling breaks down any type of plastics into its molecular elements, thereby reconverting used plastics to practically virgin-like raw materials. In theory, chemical recycling realises the principles of the circular economy: it allows to drastically increase recycling rates, helps to divert waste away from landfills and prevents incineration, extracts value from waste, closes the circular loop by supplying high-quality raw materials, and so on. It does not come as a surprise that chemical recycling is “hyped” by the industry as the “holy grail” of recycling, and so over the last few years, big players like BP, Neste or Unilever have heavily invested in chemical recycling technologies.
So, is chemical recycling the silver bullet that can finally reconcile environmental protection with plastics production? Unfortunately, reality paints a different picture. Sharing the same fate as most secondary raw materials, an uncompetitive, high price compared to virgin materials, an insufficient scale of production and hence lack of large-scale availability have so far hindered the large-scale deployment of chemical recycling.
Despite these hurdles, the European Commission regards chemical recycling as a “promising technology” and seeks to support projects exploring the potential of chemical recycling within the scope of the Circular Economy Action Plan. Undoubtedly, a strong regulatory framework can help to regulate and incentivise large-scale chemical recycling and allow it to become economically viable and competitive. The Commission’s call for projects is the first step in this direction. At the same time, however, the Commission’s interest in chemical recycling should not be mistaken as a blank check. After all, the principle of “reduce” presides on the top of the waste hierarchy, and so minimalizing the use of plastics overall will remain the EU’s main priority.