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Chemical recycling debate intensifies

The growing interest in chemical recycling is also developing into a keen debate with advocates of mechanical recycling over how the new technology should be used.

On the one hand, chemical recycling is attracting significant investment as it becomes clear that the rate of growth in the use of waste plastics – and the waste generated – is outstripping the increase in conventional recycling. On the other, it is argued the new  technology is more energy intensive and could marginalise proven lower-carbon solutions.

Chemical Recycling Europe (CRE), representing major stakeholders, points out that polyolefins represent around 50% of the total plastic production and close to 70% of the plastic packaging production in Europe. Polyolefin waste plastic packaging, particularly flexibles and films used for food contact, represents the main unrecycled fraction that is typically sent for energy recovery, sent to landfill or merely enters the environment. CRE insists chemical recycling delivers for this major scrap fraction.

Mass balance

A key issue is how material recovered by chemical recycling is accounted for when it is used in new products. The UK, for example, currently taxes packaging which does not contain at least 30% recycled packaging. The government is currently considering whether so-called ‘mass balance’ accounting (MBA) will be accepted, which would give a green light to chemical recyclers.

There are different versions of MBA, including mass balance fuel-exempt. CRE says recycled and virgin feedstocks were often blended and cannot then be physically separated once fed into the complex large-scale installations. Mechanical recyclers argue the measurement of recycled material should come before polymers enter the cracker.

CRE’s annual conference in Brussels in September urged the European Commission to recognise and adopt mass balance fuel-exempt accounting. CRE president Carlos Monreal said: ‘The adoption of ambitious mandatory recycled content targets for all plastics, including for contact sensitive applications, would send a strong demand signal to the market. We now need to urgently adopt MBA into legislation to enable a fast scale-up for chemical recycling capacity.’


On the other hand, a new roadmap to boost recycling and develop a transparent regulatory framework from EuRIC, the European Recycling Industries’ Confederation, opposes MBA with a fuel use exclusion ‘when superior recycling options are available’. It warns that ‘recycling must not be diluted by a carte blanche to chemical recyclers through an inventive MBA approach’.

The roadmap goes on: ‘Allocation methods based on a polymer only and fuel-use-excluded are simply greenwashing because it would allow companies to claim and market products made from recycled materials regardless of whether it is true and will not help to diminish the major problem of the waste crisis.’

Even so, EuRIC acknowledges there is a complementary role for chemical recycling alongside mechanical recycling, particularly for certain plastics and rubber applications, as well as for fibre-to-fibre textiles recycling.

‘[EuRIC] recommends expediting standardisation methods and prioritising a risk-based approach in recycled outputs and applications over total chemical content, to ensure the integrity of recycled materials.’

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