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Chemical Recycling

Chemical Recycling as a Potential End-of-life Solution

Solutions for dealing with end-of-life issues related to plastic packaging vary depending on different perspectives, such as banning certain single-use products, raising consumer and industry awareness, and increasing the recyclability of plastics. For the latter, chemical recycling of plastics has been deemed an attractive option, mostly because it has the potential to deliver high-quality material in contrast to the lower grade alternatives that result from mechanical recycling.

Chemical recycling is defined as a recycling process in which plastic waste undergoes a transformation that modifies its chemical composition and converts it into a valuable high-quality feedstock material. This feedstock material can then be used for creating new chemicals or plastic products. These recycling processes enable setting-up closed-loop pathways for certain kinds of plastic waste.

Chemical recycling - Figure 1

Source: A circular economy for plastics – Insights from research and innovation to inform policy and funding decisions, 2019)

Chemical Recycling Processes

There are several processes that are considered chemical recycling processes: such as pyrolysis, gasification, depolymerization, and solvolysis. Each of these processes requires a specific kind of feedstock or input stream (i.e mixed plastic, polycondensates, etc.) that is processed under specific conditions, such as high temperature, or dissolved in a specific substance and delivered as output monomers or polymers (which is the case for depolymerization and solvolysis) or a fuel such as syngas or diesel (which is the case for pyrolysis and gasification).

When using plastics as the waste stream for chemical recycling, this results mostly in two types of outputs: either a fuel (oil) or a material of high value which can be used as raw material (polymer, monomer, aromatic, etc.). The second output in particular is regarded as the most desirable output as it enables closing the loop, while producing fuel only enables a secondary lifecycle through energy recovery by burning.

Even though these processes are still in development and there are some uncertainties around them, such as scale-up capacity, economic viability, environmental impact, and the required logistic system (between all involved parties from waste recollection to product output), it is expected that in the future this type of recycling will become a feasible solution. At the moment, the Dutch government has the ambition to recycle 10% of all plastic waste chemically by 2030.

Ecomatters Assessment Tool

To assess the potential of various chemical recycling initiatives and processes, Ecomatters developed an assessment tool for the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. This self-assessment tool evaluates the viability of chemical recycling initiatives by assessing maturity and risk in categories such as feedstock, process and logistics, and product output, as well as providing an indication of the potential environmental benefits of the initiative. The tool can be used to assess Initiatives in chemical recycling that deal with plastic packaging or post-consumer plastic waste from households and the shop-office-services sector.

Ecomatters Support

Ecomatters has a wealth of experience in understanding and integrating our latest knowledge regarding this subject into organisational strategy development, product and organisation carbon calculations, and legislations regarding end-of-life status. More specifically, Ecomatters can provide the following services and bespoke advice:

For funding bodies, NGO’s, banks or investors:

  • Understanding if an initiative has the potential to scale-up and is viable for investment
  • Support in developing a chemical recycling strategy for investment portfolios or grant funding allocation

For start-ups and companies:

  • Modelling the environmental footprint of chemical recycling processes and resulting recycled material
  • Support in developing communication statements and claims around the environmental benefits of the recycled material, using data-driven insights
  • Advise and support on achieving the “End of waste status” for the recycled material
  • REACH registrations for the recycled material

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