Chemical Recycling: Can it solve the plastic crisis?

The world is drowning in plastic. About 60% of the more than 8,700 million metric tonnes of plastic ever made is no longer in use, instead sat mostly in landfill or released to the environment. That equals over 400kg of plastic waste for every one of the 7.6 billion people on the planet.

There are several legislative proposals trying to address the issue. The Circular Plastic Alliance aims at reaching 10 millions tonnes of recycled content on the EU market by 2025, the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive requires to integrate 25% recycled plastic by 2025 in PET bottles and 30% by 2030 in all types of beverage bottles, and the EU Plastic Strategy aims to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030.

The Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan says it will support projects “exploring the potential of chemical recycling”. Chemical recycling means recycling of plastics into feedstock for new chemicals. The chemical recycling technology serves a dual purpose – it reduces the amount of plastic waste, and improves resource efficiency.

Mechanical recycling still plays an important role. Currently, one-third of post-consumer plastic waste is collected for recycling in Europe, but less is actually recycled. The European target for plastic packaging is to recycle 50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030. Therefore, mechanical recycling is not enough. Industry argues that a combination of both solutions can significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste and improve the circularity of plastic.

Yet some civil society voices warn against placing too much faith in chemical recycling, since the technologies are young and under-analysed, especially on their environmental impact. They maintain that refusing as much plastic as possible in the first place is still the best solution.

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