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The Smoking Gun of Chemical Recycling

The Smoking Gun of Chemical Recycling


Recycling plastic in a big way at low expense with maximum output at a high quality level – that's the impression big players in the industry evoke when they speak of "chemical recycling". The pyrolysis process is put forth as the most modern and effective means to counter the negative impact of plastic on the environment and climate. There is, however, a lack of valid data on chemical recycling of plastic because the process has not been scaled to a commercial level despite a half century of research and experimentation. Nevertheless, some Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) have been issued that emphasize the sustainability of chemical recycling.

In a joint effort, Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union), the European organizations Zero Waste Europe, GAIA, ECOS, Reth!nk Plastic and the European Environmental Bureau, took a close look at the most recent LCAs on chemical recycling – and delivered a devastating appraisal:

"In our review, we were able to reveal the biases and the lack of credibility in the LCAs from a number of large companies. Our summary of the results discloses weaknesses, errors and questionable assertions," said Thomas Fischer, Circular Economy Manager at DUH.

Sascha Roth, NABU Policy Officer, added: "The more closely we look at chemical recyclers, the more skeptical we become. Our examinations show that in LCAs, not all that glitters is gold. We have to concentrate on today's effective methods such as mechanical recycling and not on complex, unknown technologies that prove to be smoke grenades in the end."

One-sided, incomplete or absolutely false

The study lists 10 major concerns with Life Cycle Assessments for chemical recycling. For example, the impression is given that chemical recycling requires very little or no external energy, although the process does need substantial amounts of externally applied energy. Furthermore, assumptions are made that the outputs from the pyrolysis process could have quality comparable to virgin plastic. On the contrary, given the low quality of the output, only a small portion can be used for end-products. The high loss of material in the process of chemical recycling is not even mentioned in the LCAs and the toxicity levels are not closely examined. In general, datasets are not disclosed, only selective results are presented and analyses are incomplete. Moreover, mechanical recycling is negatively portrayed and very biased assumptions are made regarding alternative ways to deal with plastic.

Reinhard Schneider, owner of the cleaning products company Werner & Mertz and winner of the German Environmental Award 2019, is shocked by the audacious methods used by the plastic lobby. "It is painful to see the means some players in the industry use to prevent or delay a genuine circular economy by putting a green spin on ineffective technologies."

Summary and Recommendations

The makers of the study come to the conclusion that these Life Cycle Assessments can easily be misinterpreted, leading to a glossed-over image of chemical recycling. Special criticism was leveled at the inadequate disclosure of datasets that went into the LCAs and made an independent review impossible. Therefore, policy-makers should be cautious about using chemical recycling LCAs as a basis for decision-making. DUH, NABU and the others recommend that the European Union support more independent research on the environmental impact of chemical recycling and ultimately incentivize only recycling processes with a lower carbon footprint than the production of virgin plastic.

Werner & Mertz GmbH



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