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Legislation call for chemical recycling

Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) has called for a package of measures to ensure that the chemical recycling (CR) of plastics is used only when mechanical recycling is unsuitable.

ZWE, a collective group of non-governmental organisations, platforms and networks, warns that CR ‘is not viable in the short term and this is a key factor to consider when designing the EU Circular Economy’.

A new ZWE study acknowledges that plastic cannot be endlessly mechanically recycled without reducing its properties and quality, and that not all plastic types can be mechanically recycled.

‘These limits set challenges for plastics recycling and show the need for significant improvements in the end-of-life management of plastics,’ it says. The report is mainly concerned with thermal depolymerisation and cracking (pyrolysis and gasification) which convert polymers back into simpler molecules. Such technologies deal with more than one monomer at a time and are also capable of producing fuels.

CR can be complementary

The report agrees that CR could complement mechanical recycling where the latter is unsuited to recover plastic because it is too degraded, contaminated or complex. Fuel production could also offer significant rewards. But Joan Marc Simon, executive director, ZWE warns, ‘The CR hype should not divert attention from the real solution to plastic pollution which is replacing single-use plastics, detoxifying and simplifying new plastics, and designing business models to make efficient use of plastics.’

Suggested action

The group is calling for the following developments:

  • Defining CR to exclude any operation that does not result in the production of new plastics.
  • Only processes with a lower carbon footprint than the production of plastic from virgin feedstock can be classified as CR.
  • CR should be used to deal with degraded and contaminated plastics and never with plastics coming from separate collection.
  • Verification systems to ensure CR process outputs plastic and plastic feedstocks.
  • Facilities licensed for CR should not produce fuel as primary output
  • A new level in the waste hierarchy should be added for those operations that recover materials from mixed waste (such as CR) that today end up burned or landfilled.
  • EU funding should only be allowed to finance plastic-to-plastic chemical operations.

The study concludes the preferred option to curb plastic pollution from an environmental and economic perspective is to invest in reduction and reuse solutions and ensure that no plastic escapes the material loop via plastic-to-fuel. 

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