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Campaigners condemn chemical recovery

Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) is calling on Brussels policy makers to rule that the ‘chemical recovery’ of plastic waste is more environmentally damaging than mechanical recycling and should be placed lower in the waste hierarchy.

ZWE’s conclusion comes in a briefing that argues the thermal decomposition of plastic into feedstock molecules, mainly delivered by pyrolysis and gasification techniques, should be regarded as chemical recovery. ‘Pyrolysis and gasification result in significant carbon emissions,’ it says. ‘Chemical recovery processes, which have significant negative environmental impacts, should not be levers to tackle the plastic waste challenge.’

The report comes as more leading brands, manufacturers and waste managers are backing such technologies as a more efficient and practical way of dealing with hard-to-recycle packaging and other uses of plastics. Considerable sums are being spent across Europe on research and development of these technologies.

But the report insists: ‘Due to low material recovery rates, energy requirements and CO2 emissions, thermal decomposition-based chemical recovery methods do not enable a true circular approach for plastic waste. Therefore, techniques such as pyrolysis and gasification should be classified at a lower level in the waste hierarchy than other recycling methods and must be classified as recovery.’

The report acknowledges that the chemical recycling of plastic waste into monomers and oligomers is technically and environmentally different from recovery processes but maintains both are less circular than mechanical recycling and that should be reflected in the waste hierarchy.

‘Chemical recovery should be the very last resort for waste that cannot be mechanically or chemically recycled after effective inclusion of waste hierarchy principles into the design of plastics.

‘Ecodesign principles should focus on prevention, reduction, and reuse as main priorities. Specific design criteria for recycling should only be targeted to mechanical recycling, and should not be established for chemical recycling and chemical recovery.’

ZWE was established in 2014 as a campaigning network of communities and organisations for the elimination of waste.

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