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Chemical recycling ‘last resort’

Chemical recycling has a role to play in a circular economy but should be a last resort for plastics and other materials that cannot be recycled or reused conventionally, the European Commission has warned.

The cautionary tone on the innovative technology came from two senior representatives of the commission during an online discussion of the role of chemicals as a catalyst for a sustainable recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kerstin Jorna, director-general at DG Grow, said the commission’s ‘Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability’, published in October, recognised that chemicals were ‘an active ingredient’ for recovery and plastics had a part to play in a green economy – where appropriate.

Kerstin Jorna.

Giving the keynote speech during the Euractiv conference, she added: ‘We need to build a circular economy for plastics within functioning business models. Where there is a clear case that chemical recycling is better for the environment – and safe – it has to find its place within new circular business models.’ This would require ‘unprecedented co-operation’ between stakeholders.

Cristina de Avila, head sustainable chemicals at the environment department, acknowledged the key role of chemicals and plastics in a sustainable economy. ‘Chemical recycling can overcome the limitations of traditional mechanical recycling of plastics. It seems to be a great opportunity to deal with currently unrecyclable plastics,’ she said.

Cristina de Avila.

But de Avila cautioned there were ‘certain challenges’ about chemical recycling to be considered, including its environmental impact and energy use. Life cycle analysis was crucial in assessing sustainability. She concluded: ‘We need to work on choosing as building blocks those chemicals that can make the circular economy happen. 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.’

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