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‘Chemical must not replace mechanical recycling’

A leading member of the global recycling industry has cautioned about the growing trend towards the chemical recycling of plastics. Henk Alssema, who chairs the BIR plastics committee, says the new technology has a place in processing scrap plastics but should not be favoured over mechanical recycling.

Alssema, who is also director and co-owner of Vita Plastics in the Netherlands, says the number of factories is ‘mushrooming’. Chemical companies including ExxonMobil, BASF and Sabic are investing in the technology and in January Eastman Chemical said it was putting US$ 1 billion (EUR 880 000) into the world’s largest chemical recycling factory in France.

‘This recycling route is quickly gaining in popularity and the chemical industry is excited by its potential,’ he writes in the latest BIR quarterly Mirror. ‘But is chemical recycling a wholly positive development? Personally, I believe it can be a valuable addition to mechanical recycling but let us not make the mistake of favouring chemical recycling over mechanical recycling. It detracts from green awareness in consuming more energy and seemingly placing a heavier burden on the environment.’

Considering global markets, the chairman notes that demand for recycled material remains at exceptionally high levels.

‘Although this is an extremely positive development for our industry, all that glitters is not gold. Recyclers are struggling to obtain input material and, if available at all, it comes at an extremely high cost. Furthermore, energy prices have surged to exorbitant levels and there is an enormous shortage of personnel.’

He says final processors are ‘paying through the nose’ for PP regranulate while other polymer prices are high. ‘Prices are not expected to drop in the short term if demand stays as high as it is but whether it will is another question.’

Fellow board member Steve Wong, also writing in the Mirror, comments on the recent decision by shipping line CMA CGM to no longer carry plastic waste on its ships from 1 June, citing environmental concerns. The French-based firm said it currently transports the equivalent of 50 000 standard containers of plastic waste per year.

‘This decision will have a significant impact on the shipping of wastes from country to country,’ Wong concludes. ‘As a result, we can foresee that recycling will become a localised industry.’

He also notes that, for various reasons globally, most recyclers are seeking alternative markets to China to achieve better prices. Recycled natural LDPE pellets from film are selling for over US$ 1 150 per tonne in southeast Asia and India whereas China typically pays only US$ 950. Vietnam, India, Indonesia and Malaysia are continuing to offer better prices for PET and PP.

Plastic scrap supply is tight as the tonnages collected since the year-end have been much lower than expected. PE film scrap is said to be selling at over US$ 550 per tonne ex-works in the UK and mainland Europe.

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