On November 11, 2021, the European Chemical Agency (hereinafter, the “ECHA”) released a commissioned report to assess current knowledge of chemical recycling of polymeric materials such as plastics and rubber from waste. It offers conclusions and recommendations that should be considered with an eye to further development of chemical recycling and reduction of plastic pollution—particularly as the global production of plastics is expected to quadruple by 2050 (the report is accessible here).
The specific objectives of the report were to collect information, through the review of literature, the consultation of experts, and the development of case studies, and then draw up a report on the following areas: (i) sources, main materials, substances, and processes of chemical recycling; (ii) current performance of chemical recycling technologies; (iii) opportunities and challenges; (iv) benefits in the context of the circular economy; (v) readiness level of different technologies and regulatory oversight. To address the research questions, the authors reviewed 229 research and gray literature sources and interviewed 22 experts in chemical recycling.
Chemical recycling is used for processing various types of waste, including biomass, concrete, and plastic waste. Only a small part of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled or incinerated, with the rest accumulating in landfills and becoming ubiquitous in the natural environment. The importance of reducing plastic pollution has been recognized in various European strategic documents, where chemical recycling has been considered among various potential solutions to increase recycling of plastics. Due to the scale of plastic pollution and the potential role that chemical recycling could play in addressing some of the related issues, the report focuses on chemical recycling of plastic waste.
Following are some of the conclusions and potential solutions reached by experts and provided in the report:
- regulatory issues in chemical recycling are currently not discussed in scientific papers. The opportunities and challenges posed by the REACH (“Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals”—more information here) regulation and other chemical, waste, and product safety legislation are specific to each chemical recycling technology. As such, the report recommends that the regulatory issues be studied on a case-by-case basis, broken out by type of chemical recycling technology. It also summarizes the feedback from operators on the challenges for each recycling technology;
- there is little knowledge about the abilities of different chemical recycling processes to eliminate substances of concern. To make sound conclusions, investigations should be carried out at chemical recycling plants;
- chemical recycling technologies differ in their potential to ensure the circularity of plastics. The potential of specific technologies should be evaluated on a case-by-case to avoid making false generalizations by applying the pros and cons of one technology to the entire field of chemical recycling;
- blockchain and digital technologies can be used to improve traceability of substances of concern in recycling. However, implementation of these technologies requires substantial effort between and inside organizations.
According to Erwin Annys, Head of ECHA’s Support and Enforcement Unit, “It is important to understand how the different chemical recycling techniques can reduce the presence of substances of concern in recycled materials to achieve toxic-free cycles under the circular economy. We also want to understand to what extent this will result in new REACH registrations. Finally, the report gives an overview on the state of the art of the different chemical recycling processes and the advantages and disadvantages of these techniques.”