q Q&A - Chemical Recycling Europe

Chemical Recycling Q&A

Is chemical recycling the same in all countries?

The definition of chemical recycling (also referred to as advanced recycling) can differ country to country, depending on national legislation. This can lead to different interpretations of technology defined as chemical or advanced recycling.

In Europe the definition is consistent across the whole plastic value chain. The European Coalition on Chemical Recycling defines it as converting “polymeric waste by changing its chemical structure to produce substances that are used as products or as raw materials for the manufacturing of products. Products exclude those used as fuels or means to generate energy.” This follows an existing EU definition of recycling, set out in the Waste Framework Directive. This includes chemical recycling under the definition of ‘Recycling’. Using the output of chemical recycling as a fuel is excluded from the definition of chemical recycling in Europe.

This raises questions around the classification of the technology of pyrolysis. Some companies using a pyrolysis model may choose to make fuel from some of their output, this would not count as ‘recycling’. They may also sell their outputs as products or raw materials to make new products or plastics, which would count as ‘recycling’. Both have a role to play, but at different levels of the waste hierarchy.

*Chemical Recycling converts polymeric waste by changing its chemical structure to produce substances that are used as products or as raw materials for the manufacturing of products. Products exclude those used as fuels or means to generate energy.

The EU Green Deal sets an ambitious growth roadmap towards a climate-neutral circular economy for the EU by 2050. Chemical recycling can help drive the EU towards a sustainable model by turning plastic waste into valuable products and keeping them in the economy. It can also reduce carbon emissions by replacing incineration with chemical recycling processes, and by decoupling the manufacture of new plastic materials from fossil feedstock. Chemical recycling will help increase recycling rates, including supporting EU recycling targets of 50% recycled plastic packaging by 2025 and 55% by 2030.

Furthermore, the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability aims to prevent or minimise the presence of hazardous substances in recycled materials. This is key for achieving a sustainable and safer circular economy for plastics. Chemical recycling can play a key role in eliminating these hazards, creating safe recycled products.

Currently plastic waste, especially rigid plastics made from one type of polymer, can be recycled through mechanical recycling. As part of this process plastic waste is washed, separated by colour and polymer type, remelted and formed into pellets. These pellets are then melted and moulded into new plastic products. Through the mechanical recycling process the characteristics of plastics degrade each time they are melted, meaning it cannot be recycled indefinitely.

Chemical recycling can provide a solution for plastic waste that cannot be mechanically recycled, for either technical or economic reasons. This could include contaminated plastic, mixed types, or multi-material waste. Additionally, chemical recycling overcomes some of the quality challenges faced by mechanical recycling, as it can produce the basic chemicals needed to create high-quality food-grade packaging. This overcomes issues related to odour, colour, aspect, limited functionality, and quality of the recycled content.

Overall, chemical recycling takes a different type of plastic waste as its feedstock and creates a different quality output than that of mechanical recycling. It should be treated as a complementary solution which sits alongside mechanical methods to recycle a wider scope of plastic waste.

No. First, some plastic waste already has a clear and economical route to be recycled through mechanical means. While this plastic waste could be chemically recycled from a technical perspective, it has an existing market. Chemical recycling should be used for cases where the plastic structures, contamination levels, and end-market applications require it.

Second, while chemical recycling can process some types of plastics not suited to mechanical recycling, there are still some streams of waste which cannot be treated by either. This is to do with the specifications of the technology, which is in place to ensure the chemical recycling process is economical, achieves the right yield, and delivers the targeted environmental performance. Therefore, it is important for the plastic value-chain to continue working on the eco-design of their products. All items should be designed so they can be mechanically or chemically recycled, both economically and technically, once no longer in use.

Third, chemical recycling can theoretically take plastics from different sectors, for example waste food packaging, automotive and agriculture. So far, focus has been placed on packaging, particularly post-consumer packaging, due to its short-term use and partial collection. There are opportunities to recycle waste plastic from other sectors, although further studies must be done on the impact of different additives or contaminants on chemical recycling technologies.

Despite chemical recycling technology being available for some time, the plastic waste challenge has only recently become part of the public discourse. Consumers, companies, governments, and NGOs, amongst others, have realised that a concerted effort involving the entire plastic value chain is required to address the issue.

Significantly increasing recycling rates is now at the top of many governments’ agendas. Due to the limitations of mechanical recycling, more attention has been given to technologies such as chemical recycling, which can provide solutions to this challenge.

The plastic waste used in chemical recycling is currently not recycled mechanically, for both technical and economic reasons. Without chemical recycling it would end up in being used for waste-to-energy, incinerated, landfilled, or worse still, become plastic pollution in the environment. In this sense, chemical recycling complements mechanical recycling efforts by increasing recycling rates.

Each chemical recycling technology can treat specific feedstock, and therefore offer a complementary model to support a circular economy for all plastics.

  • Depolymerisation mostly focuses on monostreams, independently sorted by plastic types: PET (including fibres), PA, PU, PMMA and PLA.
  • Pyrolysis and hydrothermal upgrading mostly focus on mixed polymers (including multilayers, multi-materials within controlled limits): LDPE, HDPE, PP, PS.
  • Gasification mostly focuses on mixed polymers.

Bioplastics can be bio-based, like bio-based PE (polyethylene) and bio-based PUR (polyurethanes). They can also be biodegradable, for example PBAT (polybutylene adipate terephthalate). Or they can be both bio-based and biodegradable, such as PLA (polylactic acid) and starch blends.

Bio-based plastics that are chemically and physically identical to their fossil-based counterparts, but made from biomass like bio-based PE or PET, can be recycled by some chemical recycling processes. However, biodegradable plastics are generally not recyclable by pyrolysis.

CRE strongly supports efforts to ensure that biodegradable plastics are sorted and diverted towards waste streams for composting or other feasible recycling operations.

Compared to what some claim, chemical recycling is now a reality. However, it is not a recycling solution which has been fully scaled yet.

There are chemical recycling plants already up and running in Europe either as pilot or as small industrial and commercial plants. Additionally, some of their outputs are REACH registered and already sold on a daily basis.

Chemical recyclers have worked with the value-chain to further prove the chemical recycling process by incorporating the high-quality recycled content into brands’ commercialized food-grade products or by making value-added products which are used in existing products, formulations and processes.

Yet, the technologies are in constant evolution. R&D activities have provided new opportunities for optimizing existing processes in the areas of health and safety, environmental, energy, product quality, etc. Following any technology development processes, each chemical recycling process will follow an evolutionary path of development and deployment and significant progress is expected to be achieved in the coming 5 years.Chemical recycling is now a reality. However, it is not a recycling solution which has been fully scaled yet. There are chemical recycling plants running in Europe, either as pilot or small industrial and commercial plants. Additionally, some of their outputs are REACH registered and already sold.

Chemical recyclers have worked with the value-chain to further prove the chemical recycling process by incorporating the high-quality recycled content into brands’ commercialised food-grade products, or by making value-added products which are used in existing products, formulations, and processes.

The technologies are in constant evolution. R&D activities have provided new opportunities for optimising existing processes in the areas including health and safety, environmental, energy and product quality. Following any technology development processes, each chemical recycling process will follow an evolutionary path of development and deployment.

Significant progress is expected to be achieved in the coming five years.

For all chemical recycling processes, the yield naturally varies based on the composition and contamination of the plastic waste. It also relies on high-quality sorting to prepare the plastic waste and ensure the process is technically and economically viable.

Taking real data, based on existing streams, shows:

  • Pyrolysis has a yield ranging from 70-80%.
  • Hydrothermal upgrading has a yield of around 85%.
  • Deploymerisation has a yield closer to 90%.

In most chemical recycling technologies, there is some residue. This is normally used or sold as an input into other processes or products, for example as a component in bitumen or cement.

Yes, chemical recycling technologies can remove contaminants through purification steps. This can create outputs comparable to virgin materials, which are therefore suitable for food-contact applications. Despite having the capacity and properties to do so, chemical recycling for new food-grade plastics does not have full policy recognition yet. This is something the chemical recycling sector, directly and through CRE, is working to develop.

Pyrolysis is currently being discussed in the Commission under DG SANTE. The hydrocarbon oils from this process have already received a formal authorisation to be used in food-grade packaging. The current assessment of the Commission is that no EFSA authorisation would be necessary for “Feedstock Recycling” due to the eliminated contamination following the chemical recycling and cracking unit.

Deploymerisation also does not have the policy recognition. However, we hope that DG SANTE will authorise the output to be used for food-grade applications without an EFSA authorisation. The output would need to be in compliance with the defined characteristics and purity levels as explained in Regulation 282/2008/EC and Regulation 10/2011/EC.

We are in the process of developing a holistic chemical recycling LCA, although some of our members have already conducted Life Cycle Analyses for their processes.

Overall, the results of Life Cycle Analysis for chemical recycling processes are positive. Chemical recycling:

    • has a lower environmental impact than incineration with energy recovery;
    • has a lower environmental impact than making plastics or specialty chemical products from fossil sources;
    • tends to have a higher environmental impact than mechanical recycling, although it varies between technologies and plastic streams treated.

Here are some links to the existing LCA results:

Some companies have also completed their own LCA, this information can be found on their websites.