Chemical recycling: Solving the plastic problem, but with many problems

The plastics industry demonstrates its technology chemical recycling As a new great hope in the fight against the pollution crisis plastic. But the indicators of processing enterprises operating today are far from the targets.

When plastic is thrown away, it’s most likely destined for landfill, incineration, or simply being dumped into the environment. Only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled.

Traditional mechanical recycling, where plastic waste is ground, washed and melted, has not been able to keep up with the doubling of plastic production in the past 20 years.

Plastic waste is now everywhere, from the Arctic to the deepest parts of the ocean. They are in the air we breathe and inside our bodies. Plastics they are also fueling the climate crisis – the vast majority are produced using fossil fuels that warm the planet.

This highly visible waste crisis is a major challenge for companies looking to continue increasing production, and it is projected to nearly triple between 2019 and 2060. This is why chemical recycling is such an attractive idea.

What is chemical recycling?

This is a general term for a set of different technologies that can change the structure of plastic, usually by applying heat or solvents. breaks down into its chemical elementsand then use these building blocks production of new productsincluding other plastics 

Where traditional recycling struggles to cope with the huge cocktail of different plastics and additives produced by manufacturers, chemical recycling promises to handle even hard-to-recycle plastics like film, snack bags or polystyrene.

Unlike mechanical recycling, where the quality of the product decreases each time, chemical recycling promises high-quality plastics.

Big plans

The plastics industry quickly adopted chemical recycling by building processing facilities. Chemical company Dow It plans to build more chemical processing facilities in the US and Europe, adding up to 600,000 tonnes of recycling capacity by 2030.

Oil giant ExxonThe US, one of the world’s largest plastic producers, has committed to chemically process more than 1 billion kilograms of plastic waste annually by 2027 through new facilities in Europe and Asia.

“Chemical recycling transforms used plastic and adds value to it,” said a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association of US chemical and plastics companies, adding that “we must eliminate plastic pollution without eliminating the benefits of plastics.”

For some experts, this technology is not performing as well as companies think.

Problems and disappointing performance

Although petrochemical companies often tout the ability of chemical processing to produce new, high-quality plastics, much of what is produced is turned into fuel rather than new plastic products. Jennifer Congdon, deputy director of the non-profit organization, notes that even companies that produce new plastic products have little transparency about how much recycled content they contain. Other than plastic.

Taylor Wekert, an analyst at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory who researches plastics recycling, says the process also requires a large amount of energy to prepare the waste, heat the reactor and separate the chemicals.

“Mechanical recycling simply uses less energy and chemicals than chemical recycling, making it cheaper overall and less environmentally burdensome.”

According to a report by Beyond Plastics and IPEN, an NGO that campaigns against toxic chemicals, as of last September there were 11 chemical recycling facilities operating in the United States. Even if they all work at full capacity, They only managed to recycle less than 1.3% of US plastic wasteaccording to the report’s estimates.

Congdon, the report’s author, found that most facilities were operating well below capacity. Last month, the recycling facility closed after 5 years Regenyx in Oregon, which processes polystyrene. It never came close to being able to process the 3,650 tons of plastic waste it advertised per year. It reached a total of 3,000 tons during its 5-year operation.

Its chemical processing plant Exxon With a capacity of 36,000 tons per year, Texas currently processes about 6,800 tons per year. A company-operated facility in Indiana Bright signhas the capacity to process 100,000 tons of plastic waste per year, but after 5 years of operation, it has processed only about 2,000 tons.

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