Chemical recycling should be seen as a last resort option to deal with growing amounts of plastic waste while more research is needed to reduce its energy consumption, a senior EU official has said.
The European Commission sees chemical recycling as a promising way of dealing with plastic waste. The process holds the promise of isolating toxic substances contained in old plastics, making it possible to retrieve feedstocks that can be used to manufacture products which are as good as new.
However, it should only be seen as a last resort option – after prevention, reuse, and mechanical recycling processes, which are less energy-intensive, the European Commission insists.
“We need to work on choosing as building blocks those chemicals that can make the circular economy happen,” said Cristina de Avila, head of unit for sustainable chemicals at the European Commission’s environment department.
“This is what our chemicals strategy for sustainability is about – this frame of mind in which chemical recycling is a last resort for legacy substances,” she said at a EURACTIV event last week.
The European Commission’s chemicals strategy, published in October, was a step towards a zero-pollution industry, building on almost two decades of work at EU level to register chemical substances and ban the most harmful among them.
Some of these banned substances, called legacy chemicals, are still present in old plastic products today, making their end-of-life recycling more challenging and costly. Chemical recycling processes hold the promise of removing these, enabling more plastics to be recycled down the line.
Chemical recycling processes are also being tested in other industrial sectors. In the auto industry, they can help recycle materials found in batteries such as cobalt, nickel and lithium. And in sectors like textiles, which is the fourth biggest consumer of primary raw materials and water, technologies are emerging to boost recycling with chemical processes.
Yet, the European Commission is cautious about the use of chemical recycling, which is still at the development stage and requires a large amount of energy, making some environmentalists sceptical about its potential.
To achieve a circular economy, the Commission’s latest action plan promotes waste prevention and reuse as preferable options, in accordance with the EU’s waste hierarchy. “We need to prevent rather than try and solve the problems that we find at the end of the line at the waste stage,” said de Avila.
To prevent waste and avoid energy-intensive recycling processes requires fundamental shifts in manufacturing to make products reusable and recyclable by design. This is one of the key objectives of the Commission’s circular economy action plan.
“The circular economy is much, much more than better recycling,” said Andrew Morlet, chief executive of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “It’s rethinking systems and working across value chains to redesign entire segments of the economy so that we keep materials in use for much longer and recycling then becomes the least valuable, last resort,” he said.
No overhaul of REACH
The categorisation of harmful and non-harmful chemicals under an EU regulation called REACH is essential in the transition towards circularity, according to the Commission.
“We cannot do this transition without chemicals. We need to know about the chemicals and REACH is the way to obtain information on chemicals,” said de Avila.
But the long-fought out legislation will not be overhauled or redone, as industry feared before the Commission’s chemicals strategy was published in October.
There may, however, be scope to request more information from chemical producers in the registration phase, including on CO2 emissions.
“We need to be careful not to reopen the Pandora’s box because it’s a huge amount of work, but we have to admit that in some cases the enforcement is not perfect,” said Pascal Chalvon Demersay, chief sustainability officer at Solvay, the Belgian chemical company.
Enforcement has been an issue under REACH. A recent study by the European Chemicals Agency found that 23% of the imported products it inspected did not meet REACH standards and other EU rules related to the classification and labelling of products containing chemical substances.
Stepping up implementation and enforcement of EU regulations is considered an urgent priority in the Commission’s chemicals strategy.
The EU needs to ensure imported goods match the standard of EU goods, said Jesus Urios, policy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, a think tank.
Industry also needs to know what substances are going to be restricted, so it can focus on sustainability, he argued. “It’s important that these new commitments in the strategy are rapidly transformed into action in the real world because action needs to take place now,” he said.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]