Why So-Called Chemical Recycling is Not a Solution to Our Plastic Problem

A recent publication from the Global Anti Incineration Alliance (GAIA) provides a clear assessment of a deeply flawed process for handling plastic waste that is being called ‘chemical recycling’.  The four page fact sheet and infographic, “Questions and Answers: Chemical Recycling” explains how the industry is conflating “chemical recycling” and “plastic-to-fuel,” and how neither are the solution to our plastic problem. The fact sheet makes clear the many problems with burning plastic and then trying to call it “recycling.”

GAIA found that during the chemical recycling process, about 50% of the carbon content of waste plastics is typically lost as greenhouse gases instead of being retained in the final plastic product. And most chemical recycling processes are energy-intensive, requiring high temperatures and pressures to break the plastics down.

Industry uses the term ‘chemical recycling’ to deliberately blur the distinction between recycling (plastic to plastic repolymerization) and incineration (plastic-to-fuel). Turning plastic into fuel to be burned does nothing to address the many forms of pollution created by producing ever-increasing quantities of plastic. The European Union’s Waste Framework Directive is crystal clear that producing fuels from waste cannot be labeled or counted as ‘recycling.’


In other words, it’s definitely NOT recycling when you treat plastic to burn it!

The Huffington Post also recently weighed in with an article on the problems of chemical recycling. Called “Why ‘The World’s Largest Recycling Plant’ Won’t Solve the Plastics Crisis” The piece notes that “Chemical recycling has been hailed as a holy grail solution to plastic waste for decades — but it has yet to live up to the hype.” 

The Huffington Post article says that “Solving the plastic problem will not be realized through incinerating of plastic. Rather, the problem requires a slew of solutions, such as eliminating unnecessary packaging, transitioning to return-and-reuse systems, substituting virgin with recycled plastic or switching to other materials like paper, collecting and disposing of waste plastic properly, and recycling.”


Rather than chemical recycling, the article notes that mechanical recycling is a much better alternative.

On the other hand, regular mechanical recycling of bottles and containers — especially those made from PET or the HDPE plastic found in laundry detergent jugs and shampoo bottles — is already well-established, even for making food-grade containers. If scaled up successfully over the next two decades, the Pew researchers found mechanical recycling could help prevent up to a third of the plastics produced from polluting the environment.


Photo credit: lmgorthand via iStock


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Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.