Opinion & Analysis

Chemical recycling of plastics

Technologies, trends and policy implications

Vasileios Rizos / Patricia Urban / Edoardo Righetti / Amin Kassab

In recent years, the challenge of plastic waste generation has become a prime concern in the global political arena. At the EU level, a dedicated strategy on plastics was adopted that led to the Single-Use Plastics Directive. In spite of this, plastic waste management data show that achieving a circular economy for plastics in the EU is a long way off. Available studies indicate that plastic waste generation may remain at high levels in the future or even increase in the absence of ambitious circularity policies. The report looks at the challenges associated with plastic waste generation and discusses the potential of using chemical recycling technologies as part of an ecosystem of solutions for increasing the circularity of plastics. It is based on evidence collected through desk-research and inputs provided during a series of stakeholder meetings.

Given the myriad applications of plastics, a mix of recycling solutions, combined with efforts aimed at increasing reuse and waste prevention will be needed. This requires a policy environment that while enabling all recycling options would at the same time provide a level playing field between mechanical and chemical recycling. To achieve such a level playing field, clarification would be needed on how chemical recycling technologies could contribute to achieving recycled content targets. As these technologies scale up, the question about whether there is a need to provide clarity about their position in the waste hierarchy and in the existing recycling definition will also need to be addressed.

There are several data uncertainties about plastic waste feedstocks and composition as well as the emissions and losses in the chemical recycling processes. The publication of methodology guidelines for LCAs comparing different treatment options for waste plastics can support a more informed debate about plastics’ circularity. More integrated assessments considering the full spectrum of plastic waste streams and how they can be treated in the most environmentally friendly way can also contribute to this debate.

This report has been prepared in the context of the CEPS Chemical Recycling Initiative.

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