The Green Deal is at the heart of the EU’s ambitions of becoming climate neutral. To meet the ambitious European objectives, much more waste plastic needs to be recycled and a broader range of markets need to be served with plastic products containing recycled content. In this respect Cefic highlights the potential of chemical recycling of plastic waste. Transitioning from a linear economy to a sustainable circular economy using innovative technologies is a key opportunity for Europe and its industries.
The recycling1 rate for glass, paper and metal today in the EU is well over 70%. Combinations of different recycling processes, techniques and solutions are in place to achieve these recycling rates. Similarly, in the development of a circular economy for plastics a combination of complementary options will be required to achieve high recycling rates for plastics.
Chemical recycling can fill a void in the plastics recycling loop, conserve valuable resources, and contribute to the creation of low carbon circular economy. Chemical recycling complements other plastic recycling options like mechanical and dissolution recycling. It is capable of processing contaminated and/or mixed plastic waste which would otherwise end up in incineration (with or without energy recovery) or landfill.
Chemical recycling technologies allow use of plastic waste as feedstock to produce new chemicals and plastics. The quality of the latter is equivalent to those produced from virgin resources, allowing use in high- quality applications such as food contact and food packaging. An added benefit is the potential of chemical recycling to capture and separate the so-called legacy chemicals and substances of very high concern (SVHC) that can be present in end-of-life plastic.
Chemical recycling is not yet a widely deployed option for the recycling of plastic waste. Scale-up requires innovation, harmonised policies, recycling-chains and clear pathways to “valorise” plastic waste that is currently incinerated, landfilled or wasted. The involvement of the entire value chain in combination with a transnational policy framework are key in this respect.
To ensure the scale up and full deployment of chemical recycling, the industry is operating under the following guiding principles:
Increase collaboration and work in partnerships to boost innovation and investments
- Innovation and Research & Development (R&D) across innovation ecosystems and along the value chains creates the opportunity to address, amongst others operability, impurities – removal of additives / legacy chemicals / substances of very high concern (SVHCs) – process yield, human and environmental risk assessment, and development of new (e.g. CO2 neutral) processes.
- Formationofvaluechainpartnershipsandcommitmentsenableinvestmentintoscale-up of chemical recycling technologies to demonstration and commercial scale.
Increase transparency and develop uniform standards for a mass balance approach.
- Adoption of a mass balance approach by the plastic value chains in the tracing and attributing credits of chemically recycled plastics.
- Transparent certification by an independent party at each step of the value chain.
- Development of standards which include clear and credible rules on feedstock qualification, mass balance calculation, and the use of appropriate product claims.
- Further develop quality standards for sorted/pre-treated plastic waste to provide clarity, consistency and transparency across Europe – if not globally – from which (new) business cases can be developed. Chemical recycling process types, food contact and REACH legislation, amongst others, should be considered in the development of these standards.
- Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) to measure environmental impacts along the life cycle of products. Conduct LCA studies to compare plastics from chemically recycled feedstock to plastics made from virgin fossil resources or alternative feedstocks.
We invite policymakers to integrate into their decisions the following key enablers, necessary for ensuring the scale up and full deployment of chemical recycling and dissolution2 recycling technologies:
- An enabling policy framework. A policy framework that looks beyond the traditional boundaries of regions and Member States and offers an open investment environment and a competitive economic model.
- Ensure a level playing field with mechanical recycling of plastic waste. Chemical recycling falls under the recycling definition in EU Directive 2008/98/EC, except when it leads to reprocessed products in fuel.
- Develop a clear and harmonised recycling-rate and recycled-content rule throughout the EU, building on the common recycling definition in the EU Directive 2008/98/EC.
- Create legal acceptance of a mass balance approach for chemical recycling based on a recognised standard when implementing or amending legislation.
- Public sector cofunding to accelerate R&D partnerships and address the higher risk areas (e.g. bridging the valley of death, coordinating innovation across the whole value chain).
- Access to feedstock. For the operation of chemical recycling plants it is necessary to have a stable, continuous supply of plastic waste.
- Ensure an open, single market for plastic waste. This can be achieved with a “fit for purpose” and harmonised approach for the shipment of plastic waste for use in recycling facilities within Europe and potentially also imported into Europe to help other regions in the creation of low carbon circular economy for plastics.
Appendix I: Important clarifications about chemical recycling
This paper describes the potential contribution that chemical recycling can make to the development of a circular economy for plastics and the key requirements to allow that to happen. The paper will be updated regularly as chemical recycling grows and develops over time.
What is chemical recycling?
Cefic definition: Feedstock recycling, also known as chemical recycling, aims to convert plastic waste into chemicals. It is a process where the chemical structure of the polymer is changed and converted into chemical building blocks including monomers that are then used again as a raw material in chemical processes.
Feedstock recycling includes processes such as gasification, pyrolysis, solvolysis, and depolymerisation, which break down plastic waste into chemical building blocks including monomers for the production of plastics.
What are the benefits of chemical recycling?
- Gives value to otherwise unused plastic waste. Today suitably sorted plastics are mechanically recycled. This means that a large quantity of plastic waste, the kind that is contaminated or mixed, is still being incinerated, landfilled or exported. Chemical recycling enables recycling of contaminated and/or mixed plastic waste that cannot be recycled through mechanical recycling. An added benefit is the potential of chemical recycling to address – and separate – the so-called legacy chemicals and substances of very high concern (SVHC) that can be present in end-of-life plastic after multiple years of use.
- Produces equivalent quality plastics to virgin feedstock. With chemical recycling end-of-life plastics are recycled back into the production of new chemicals and plastics with an equivalent quality to those produced from virgin feedstock. This recycled plastic can therefore be used in high- quality applications such as food contact and food packaging.
- Reduces the use of fossil feedstock to produce plastics, since chemically recycled plastics can be re-used as feedstock for new plastics.
- Reduction of CO2 emissions. Chemical recycling can eliminate the emissions associated with incineration and energy recovery.
Why the chemical industry?
The chemical industry is actively engaged in developing, partnering, assessing and piloting chemical and dissolution recycling technologies (see Appendix II for some recent announcements). In its Mid-Century Vision3, the European chemical industry is seen at the centre of Europe’s circular economy. By establishing chemical and dissolution recycling, the chemical industry becomes an enabler for sustainable value chains and helps these value chains meet their plastic waste recycling objectives and become fully circular.
What are the challenges?
Chemical recycling requires involvement of the full value chain and a policy framework that looks beyond the traditional boundaries of regions and Member States.
To be successful, chemical recycling must be supported by a holistic enabling policy framework, an open investment environment and a competitive economic model.
Chemical recycling processes such as gasification, pyrolysis, solvolysis, and depolymerisation exist at a demonstration level and smaller industrial size and require further research and development efforts as well as subsequent commercialisation (the Technology Readiness Level varies for different processes)4. For the scale-up the following needs to be considered:
- Integration into existing chemical plant operations, either as feedstock or as monomer.
- Consistency of plastic waste input quality from the collection and sorting processes.
- Development of the business case for chemical recycling of plastic waste.
How can the challenges be addressed?
By the value chain
Increase collaboration and work in partnerships to boost innovation and investments
The successful development of these technologies requires collaboration across the innovation ecosystem (universities, Research and Technology Organisations, private sector) and along the value chains. Partnerships are an effective instrument to 1) share knowledge and information in terms of technology development and needs along the value chain, and 2) create a win-win cooperation. Public sector co-funding accelerates the formation of R&I project partnerships, specifically if the co-funding is directed towards the higher risk areas (e.g. low TRL technology development, or coordinated innovation needs across the whole value chain).
Innovation requirements for chemical recycling technologies are for instance defined by SusChem5, the European Technology platform for Sustainable Chemistry and can be summarised to:
Input Precision and consistency of the plastic waste collection and sorting processes.
In process Addressing operability, impurities – removal of additives / legacy chemicals / SVHCs – process yield, and development of new processes, e.g. synthetic biological, CO2 neutral.
Output Purification technologies.
Recycling of specialty, or advanced material products (e.g. composites and fiber reinforced), will require the development of technology options today only available at lab- or pilot scale level. The development of continuous processes towards crude monomers from solvolysis and depolymerisation needs efforts.
Transparency and uniform standards for a mass balance approach
The chemical industry uses a small set of raw materials or feedstocks to produce tens of thousands of products. To fully unlock the circular economy potential of the chemical sector, a new approach is needed. A mass-balance method offers a workable set of rules to ensure the attribution of recycled feedstock into new products. 6
With the logistics and operations in the chemical industry it is impossible to ‘track and trace’ the pathway of each feedstock-molecule to product-molecule. A mass balance approach is considered to be one of the best ways to promote the use of circular feedstock. Like proven approaches for instance in timber, cacao and coffee, mass balance can enable a credible and transparent traceability between feedstock input and product output, and along the value chain to the producer of a final article.
Mass balance can be used for any chemical recycling process producing feedstocks like naphtha, syngas, oil or monomers. To leverage the benefits and traceability while remaining pragmatic about the implementation, Cefic recommends:
- Adoption of a mass balance approach in the tracing of chemically recycled plastics.
- Transparent certification by an independent party at each step of the value chain.
- Development of a standard which includes clear and credible rules on feedstock qualification, mass balance calculation and the use of appropriate product claims.
Further develop quality standards for sorted/pre-treated plastic waste
Efficient recycling of any material goes hand in hand with proper collection and reliable sorting of waste materials. While well-sorted and defined plastic waste streams are used for mechanical recycling, chemical recycling has a broader tolerance, ranging from homogenous but contaminated streams to mixed plastic waste streams. The two types of recycling options address very different waste streams and enable different products containing recycled plastic content.
Quality standards for sorted plastic waste will be further developed to provide clarity, consistency and transparency across Europe – if not globally – from which (new) business cases can be developed. Chemical recycling process types, food contact and REACH legislation amongst others should be considered in the development of these standards.
- Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a broadly accepted method to measure environmental impacts along the whole life cycle of a product. As more examples of the circular use of chemically recycled plastic products become available, LCA studies should be initiated to compare chemical recycling of plastics to plastic from virgin fossil resources or alternative feedstocks. A report by Material Economics7 indicates that chemically recycled plastics have a lower carbon footprint than plastics made from fossil resources. The study also acknowledges the reduced fossil depletion when using the carbon again.
By EU policymakers and decision makers
Access to feedstock
Cefic calls for an open single market for plastic waste by taking a logical and harmonised approach to shipping plastic waste for use in recycling facilities within Europe and possibly also imported into Europe.
For the operation of chemical recycling plants, the following factors are deemed to be particularly important:
- The quantity of sufficient quality of plastic waste
- The stable and continuous supply of plastic waste, and
- The size of the required collection area (region or beyond) for plastic waste
Insufficient quantities of plastic waste collected and sorted could curtail the needed investments in chemical recycling. A wider sourcing area could create transboundary shipments of plastic waste, which could be hampered by national legislation, the Basel Convention, and create administrative challenges.
Eco-modulation schemes, like Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) and others, could be used to establish the required collection and sorting infrastructure to enable the required continuous flow of plastic waste to chemical recycling plants.
An enabling regulatory framework
An enabling regulatory framework will be essential to grow chemical recycling to scale in Europe. Cefic calls for:
Harmonised definitions and standards
- Maintain a technology-neutral definition of recycling in the European waste legislation and evolving legislation, including comitology. Provide clear harmonised rules to guarantee uniform application in all Member States (implementing regulation and national energy & climate plans).
- Create a level playing field between different recycling options in the calculation of recycling targets and recycled content.
- Create legal acceptance for mass balance standard calculation of targets and recycled content.
- Use the European waste hierarchy and keep the different recycling options at a same level. Cefic supports the Waste Hierarchy definition and approaches8 and calls for all forms of recycling of plastic waste to be kept at the same level and keep the legislative framework technology-neutral in this respect.
- Apply the same incentive schemes for all recycling options (e.g. the application of EPR fees and their modulation for recyclable plastics or plastics with recycled content).
2. Avoiding legislative hurdles for chemically recycled products in food contact applications.
3. Ensuring that transport of plastic waste for recycling is enabled within the European market
4. Putting an end to landfilling of plastic waste.
1 Common recycling definition: Any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material but does not include energy recovery and the reprocessing into materials that are to be used as fuels or for backfilling operations. EU Directive 2008/98/EC of 19 November 2008 on waste, Article 3 (17)
2 Cefic definition: Dissolution recycling Is a process in which the plastics is dissolved in a suitable solvent, in which a series of purification steps are undertaken to separate the target polymer/polymers from additives and other added materials (e.g. e.g. fibers, fillers, colorants) and contaminants. The resulting output is the recovered polymers, which remain largely unaffected by the process and can be reformulated into plastics. This process may also enable the recovery of other valuable components of the plastic.
3 ‘Molecule Managers – A journey into the Future of Europe with the European Chemical Industry’ – Cefic’s Mid-Century Vision report, June 2019
4 ‘A circular economy for plastics; Insights from research and innovation to inform policy and funding decisions’ – EU Commission, March 2019
5 ‘Plastics strategic research and innovation agenda in a circular economy’ – SusChem, 2018
6 ’Enabling a circular economy for chemicals with the mass balance approach’ – Ellen MacArthur Foundation
7 ‘The circular economy, a powerful force for climate mitigation’ – Material Economics, 2018
Innovation Manager, Cefic
Cefic, the European Chemical Industry Council, founded in 1972, is the voice of large, medium and small chemical companies across Europe, which provide 1.2 million jobs and account for 16% of world chemicals production.