Recycling Shouldn’t Create More Toxins

The US has a serious plastic problem. Over the summer it emerged that the recycling rate of the ubiquitous material had sunk to less than 6 per cent. For context, the European Union together with Norway, Switzerland and the UK recycled on average 37 per cent of the plastic waste they generated in 2020. The US generates more plastic waste than any other country in the world, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2019, Americans generated 220.5kg of plastic waste per person, whereas Europeans generated an average of 121.6kg.

Plastic production is expected to increase dramatically, with the amount of plastic waste produced globally on track to almost triple by 2060. Around half of this will end up in landfill and less than a fifth will be recycled, according to the OECD. Given this trajectory, Dr Neil Tangri, science and policy director at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), says that, like others, he was encouraged when chemical recycling began to emerge on the scene around three years ago.

Chemical recycling is a broad term used to describe a range of technologies which the petrochemical sector claims can recycle plastic that is traditionally difficult to deal with mechanically. In the US, petrochemical companies are beginning to invest seriously in these technologies. The body that represents petrochemical companies in the US, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), says the country is “truly on the cusp of a massive scale up” of chemical recycling. Only in October, the US’s largest oil and gas firm, ExxonMobil, announced it was launching 13 chemical recycling facilities that would recycle 454,000 tonnes of plastic waste by 2026.

Yet if this sounds too good to be true, many scientists and green groups in the US and Europe have told E&T they think it is. “When I heard there are new technologies able to recycle plastic in a different way, I thought ‘great, finally’. And then we started digging into it. After three years of research, we have come back very disappointed,” says Tangri.

Chemical recycling aims to turn plastic waste back into its molecular building blocks, in contrast to mechanical recycling, which does not alter the chemical structure of the plastic. By far the most prevalent type of chemical recycling, pyrolysis is a process in which plastics are broken down into a range of basic hydrocarbons by heating in the absence of oxygen. The primary product is pyrolysis oil, which can be refined into fuels or further processed to create chemicals or plastic.

Gasification uses high temperatures with low volumes of air or steam to degrade plastic. The primary product is a gas called ‘synthesis gas’, which can be processed into fuels or chemicals. Other forms of chemical recycling include solvent-based processes, which dissolve plastics and separate polymers from other components. Chemical depolymerisation uses thermal and chemical reactions to break the plastic polymer chain into individual monomers


Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the ACC, says chemical recycling is critical because plastics, “whether recycled or virgin, are essential to modern life, and now we are making changes to how we manufacture plastics, using alternative and recycled feedstock, to advance a circular economy with the lowest carbon footprint”.

The petrochemical sector has promoted chemical recycling under many different guises including chemical conversion, molecular conversion and feedstock recycling. Today its preferred choice is advanced recycling. Janek Vähk, climate, energy and air pollution programme coordinator at Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), says the name change came about because the word chemical “conveys toxicity”.

Advanced recycling is also preferred because this implies all types of plastic can be completely recycled, he adds. “In the beginning [petrochemical companies] claimed it was 100 per cent that could be recycled. They said it’s like taking a cake back to its original components of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. “But we realised you cannot ever get it back to its original components – you lose a lot of material in the process. It was a marketing exercise,” says Vähk.

Both mechanical recycling and depolymerisation struggle to process much of the plastic waste we generate, such as labels, sweet wrappers, crisp packets, single-use cups and cotton swabs. These materials are made of multiple plastics like polyethylene and polypropylene, which are notoriously difficult to separate. They also have strong carbon-carbon bonds that resist depolymerisation. Pyrolysis is viewed as the only current viable way of recovering the raw materials from this waste stream.

However, notes Vähk, more than 50 per cent of the original carbon in the plastics is lost during the pyrolysis process, while the resulting pyrolysis oil requires further energy-intensive purification before it can be used as a feedstock for polymer production at petrochemical plants known as steam crackers. This has major implications.

A plethora of recent reports in the US have raised concerns about the environmental impact of chemical recycling. Earlier this year, US NGO the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted in-depth research on eight chemical recycling facilities in the country. It concluded that the facilities are “generating hazardous waste and exacerbating environmental injustices under the false guise of recycling”. It said most facilities are not producing or planning to produce new plastic but are performing “a kind of plastic incineration – turning plastic into dirty fuel using energy-intensive processes”.

The NRDC says one facility it investigated claims to turn waste polystyrene into new polystyrene but in reality, it was sending much of the material across the country for incineration. More research this year, carried out by consultancy Eunomia on behalf of ZWE, found that greenhouse gas emissions from chemical recycling are nine times greater than mechanical recycling.

The ACC disputes this, claiming advanced recycling technologies target plastics that cannot be mechanically recycled and, therefore, the more appropriate comparison would be to analyse the environmental footprint of energy recovery and landfilling. However, says Vähk, this distinction “artificially makes chemical recycling look better than it really is”. Chemical recycling is not the only alternative to mechanical recycling of hard-to-recycle plastics. A better alternative to pyrolysis is to use less plastic in the first place, he adds.

Real-world operational data is thin on the ground. A report from the not-for-profit group Chemsec this summer found the environmental impact of the different chemical recycling technologies such as waste and CO2 emissions, as well as product and process chemicals, “is shrouded in mystery”. It was able to conclude, however, that “the technologies are costly, energy-intensive and often require the addition of a great deal of virgin plastic to work – the very material that needs to be phased out”.

For the GAIA’s Tangri, it is this paradox that shows you how “nefarious” chemical recycling is. “The pyrolysis oil produced is often contaminated… so you either go through a really energy-intensive process of trying to strip out the contamination … or you say, well let’s just mix it in with our virgin oil because this is really just a drop in the bucket. “You can do that as long as your recycling is a tiny percentage of your virgin production, so if we are going to expand and scale up chemical recycling we’re also going to have to expand and scale up virgin production.”

Petrochemical companies claim that, eventually, the technology will improve so that diluting is not necessary. Petrochemical giant Neste says that “to turn chemical recycling into a viable and industrial-scale feed source for our downstream partners in the polymers and chemicals value chain, we have to bridge the quality gap between unprocessed liquefied waste plastic oil and our customers’ raw material requirements”.

However, Tangri does not buy this. “They’re just trying to pull the wool over our eyes. This is not substituting for virgin production; this is about expanding it.” This is something the ACC denies. It argues that “advanced recycling displaces virgin production because it makes new plastics from used plastics that would have otherwise needed virgin resources to produce”.

Another criticism of chemical recycling is that there is scarce evidence of it working at a commercial scale. Theresa Kjell, senior policy advisor at ChemSec, says: “For the majority of the chemical recycling technologies, we fail to see how it would be possible to scale up and make them financially viable. Even if scaling up was possible under the most optimistic scenarios, the future capacity would not come close to the volume of new plastics being produced and built-up legacy waste to be a solution.”

Campaigner and chemical engineer Jan Dell says she is sceptical that the few existing pyrolysis plants are operating. “If they are operating, I don’t think they are processing mixed plastic waste from households as claimed by the ACC,” she says. Dell says that in May 2022, she drove by the Brightmark pyrolysis plant in Ashley, Indiana, and saw first-hand that the plant was not operating. Nexus, she notes, has gone on record admitting that it uses clean, plastic film waste as the feedstock – not mixed plastic waste from households.

So why are petrochemical companies promoting and investing in the technologies? Tangri has a theory: “It’s just an excuse to be able to continue production because petrochemical companies want to be able to say we have a downstream solution to this. They say: ‘It’s not at scale, it has technical challenges, and the quality is low, but we have a technical solution and therefore we don’t have to change anything about the manufacture of plastics.’”

Tangri says oil and gas companies are rightly worried, with demand for oil and gas in the transportation sector expected to plummet this century due to the rollout of electric vehicles. “This is why billions of dollars are being invested in the US and around the world, to build new plastics factories – this is where the industry thinks its future is going to grow. At the same time, public concern about plastic is at an all-time high.” This is why the industry is keen to promote chemical recycling,

While we talk mostly about the U.S., the UK can be included in this information. There are these recycling plants in the UK and EU that are doing the same thing. The problem is worldwide and needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Our dependence on plastics, including labels, needs to be replaced with something much more sustainable. There are different choices available and we need to push the greener ones.

At Labelservice we provide a wide range of chemical labels specifically focused on recycling. Please have a look at our chemical label range or give us a call to discuss further.