Plastics: chemical recycling finally recognized by the European Commission

With plastic waste piling up, the European Commission wants to put in place new ways to deal with it. Manufacturers are offering a chemical recycling technology capable of making waste that was previously buried or incinerated circular. But what is it really?

Plastic production has grown steadily in recent decades, rising from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 391 million tonnes in 2021. Plastic pollution, meanwhile, is following the same trend. To remedy this, the European Union wants 55% of plastic packaging waste to be recycled by 2030 as part of its Green Pact. The French government is aiming for 100% recycled plastics by 2025. But the margins for progress remain significant since the recycling rate in France will only reach 25% in 2020 (compared to 35% in Europe).

Mechanical recycling already makes it possible to treat some of this waste, in particular PET. However, this process only tolerates products made of a single thermoplastic. So what to do with thermosetting plastics, with several layers of polymers, or with special properties conferred by technical additives? To meet these challenges, chemical manufacturers are proposing new recycling processes.

What is chemical recycling?

Chemical recycling consists of modifying the structures of the polymers present in the waste in order to transform them into a new raw material. Different methods are possible such as depolymerization, dissolution, or the best known: pyrolysis. At the end of this transformation, the new plastics are identical to virgin ones, made from fossil resources and are suitable for food contact. Unlike mechanical recycling, which only allows it for a single polymer, PET.

While several of the technologies are still on a pilot scale, many units are under construction in France. Dow Polyurethane recycles polyurethane from mattresses in Loiret, Ineos Styrolution has announced the construction of a commercial polystyrene recycling unit in Pas-de-Calais, TotalEnergies will produce pyrolysis oil in Seine-et-Marne. More recently, it was the American chemist Eastman who hit the headlines when he announced an investment of 1 billion euros to set up his polyester recycling plant.

An evolving regulation

While investments abound on French territory, the legislation is just beginning to adapt. After years of uncertainty about the legal framework for chemical recycling, the European Commission decided on September 15, 2022 by recognizing chemical recycling in the regulation on recycled plastic materials intended for food contact. “This is an important development. From now on, chemical recycling is formally recognized by the European Union »rejoices Jean-Yves Daclin, Managing Director France of the association of plastics producers Plastics Europe.

Previously, manufacturers could produce resins from chemical recycling, without however having the possibility of promoting the recycled part of their products. “This will allow manufacturers to contribute to the European Union’s objectives in terms of recycled content”, says Jean-Yves Daclin. However, this revision does not endorse any particular recycling technology. Each must be validated, after having demonstrated that the recycled resins do not present any health risks in contact with food.

If the legislation evolves, manufacturers want to go even further and have the mass balance per credit, a means of calculating the percentage of recycled content in a finished product. This is the same method used for green energy.

For example, within a process that would have 50% plastic waste as input, and which would produce two final products, the petrochemical company could choose to attribute all the recycled character to one product, which would then be 100% recycled and the other 0% recycled. According to Jean-Yves Daclin, “this will boost the circular economy by offering chemically recycled products, which customers will be willing to pay more for”. Negotiations are ongoing at European level and an implementing act under the Single Packaging Directive is expected to address the subject in 2023.

Questions still pending

With a more inclusive legislative framework for chemical recyclers, some questions remain. Indeed, these technologies are particularly energy-intensive and also produce final waste, in small quantities, but which must be incinerated. Environmental advocates fear that this solution has too bad a carbon footprint. But manufacturers want to be reassuring. Some of them, such as BASF and Sabic, have carried out life cycle analyzes which show that their chemical recycling is less impactful than the production of virgin resins.

Even if chemical recycling is a complementary solution to mechanical, some players fear that its rise will toughen competition on the waste market, already exacerbated by the health crisis. For Polyvia, “the biggest risk being that the plastic waste that is easiest to process mechanically ends up in chemical recycling sites”.

Finally, the Echa (European Chemicals Agency) reports concerns on the ability of different chemical recycling processes to remove substances of concern”. Some harmful additives could thus end up in the final products. The agency therefore recommends conduct surveys at chemical recycling plants”to explore these issues.

By Camille Paschal

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