“Chemical Recycling” Is A FALSE SOLUTION
As the global plastic pollution crisis continues to grow, so, too does industry hype and lobbying efforts promoting false solutions including so-called “chemical recycling”, “advanced recycling”, “waste-to-energy” or “waste-to-fuel” incineration, pyrolysis, gasification, and other techno “fixes” that will enable the plastics industry to continue producing more and more plastic, worsening the crisis.
It is a common myth that the plastic pollution crisis is solely a waste management problem. This narrative points the finger at leakages from waste management systems in Global South countries, and often asserts the need for technological fixes, such as waste-to-energy incineration and chemical processing of plastic waste.
Unfortunately, even the most modern waste management systems cannot cope with the exponential rise of plastic production and waste. Overproduction of plastic also puts an extra burden on municipalities, forcing them to manage increasing quantities of plastic, most of which is not recyclable. Any response that prioritize end-of-pipe technology over addressing the root cause will not only be futile but also increase emissions of toxic and climate pollutants to the environment. These false solutions include:
“Waste to energy”, co-incineration in cement kilns and other industrial boilers, refuse-derived fuel
Not climate-friendly: burning 1 tonne of plastic emits nearly 3 tonnes of CO2 (Material Economics, 2018)
Toxic hazard: emits toxics including cancer-causing, endocrine- and immune-disrupting dioxins and furans; heavy metals including mercury, cadmium and lead; particulate matter (GAIA, 2019)
Incineration is more expensive than landflling (World Bank, 2018); aging incinerators require significant additional public funds for upgrades (The New School, 2019)
Socio-economic and racial injustice: facilities are disproportionately sited in low-income and marginalized communities (The New School, 2019)
Competes with and undermines mechanical recycling (Nordic Council of Ministers, 2019)
Gasifcation, pyrolysis, and plasma arc
High costs and low returns: has a track record of major failures and lost more than $2 billion as of 2017 (GAIA, 2017)
Not climate-friendly: emits CO2 in both production and burning of plastic-derived fuel, which is another fossil fuel (GAIA, 2020)
Toxic hazard: releases pollutants in gaseous emissions and by-products in a similar way to waste incineration (GAIA, 2020)
Unproven technology: few projects are operational and claims are largely inﬂated (Hindenburg Research, 2020)
Often, outputs are burned due to low quality and high levels of contamination (GAIA, 2020)
Not climate-friendly: processing 1 tonne of plastics in a pyrolysis facility emits at least 3 tonnes of CO2 (GAIA, 2020)
Toxic hazard: releases toxicants in plastic into the environment as air emissions and residues (GAIA, 2020)
Toxic hazard: hazardous chemicals can leach when downcycled materials are exposed to heat, UVs, and water (Oropeza, 2019)
Resulting microplastics can attract more pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (Oropeza, 2019)
Turns plastic waste into materials with lower quality or value - products become no longer recyclable (Greenpeace, 2019)
Plastic-based construction materials are a signifcant fire hazard (Easton, 2020)
COMPOSTABLE BIO-BASED PLASTIC
Not climate-friendly: produces more GHG emissions than fossil-based plastic and wide-scale adoption could require 5% of all arable land. (Zheng & Suh, 2019)
Toxic hazard: has similar levels of toxicity to conventional plastic (Zimmermann, 2020)
It also takes up to 1 year to degrade per item unless supported by nearby industrial composting facilities (Rethink Plastic, 2018)
Often mismanaged, contaminating plastic recycling streams and ending up landfilled or incinerated (Rethink Plastic, 2018)
Oxo-degradable plastic is fossil-based and fragments into micro and nano-plastic in the presence of UV light or heat; banned in the EU (Zero Waste Europe, 2019)
Safer States: Legislative Fact Sheet on “Chemical Recycling” (September 2022)
SO WHAT ARE THE TRUE SOLUTIONS?
True solutions to the plastic pollution crisis include:
Producing less plastic. The petrochemical industry will not voluntarily scale back production, so public policies are required. These can include bans on single-use and other unnecessary plastics; a ban on constructing new or expanded plastic production facilities; a quantitative cap on plastic production; and a tax on plastic production.
Encouraging alternative service delivery models. A growing number of zero waste businesses aim to displace plastic with reusable packaging or providing services that eliminate the need for plastics.
Supporting recycling. To revitalize recycling, eliminate additives, mixed-polymer and mixed material plastics (e.g. sachets); mandate recycled content standards; require producer financial responsibility for post-consumer plastics; and integrate the informal sector.
Avoiding false solutions which divert attention, energy and resources from the true solutions listed above.