Chemical recycling, also called “superior” or “molecular” recycling, has been touted by many as a know-how of the long run for the reason that Nineteen Fifties. Right now, as we face a monumental plastic waste disaster, chemical recycling is getting extra consideration than ever. Whereas mechanical recycling makes use of equipment to shred plastic waste into flakes or pellets, chemical recycling (truly a set of many applied sciences with many capabilities) breaks the fabric down even additional — utilizing warmth, solvents and enzymes to return plastic waste to its molecular constructing blocks. Theoretically, chemical recycling might permit us to recycle many plastic merchandise lengthy regarded as “unrecyclable.” However whether or not chemical recycling would profit the surroundings, in widescale apply, is but to be confirmed.
Within the best-case state of affairs, chemical recycling might be used for gadgets exterior of frequent packaging supplies, corresponding to textiles. With the right environmental and social safeguards in place, chemical recycling might assist reduce the burden of hundreds of thousands of tons of textile waste getting into landfills annually.
However the worst-case state of affairs is these applied sciences undermining present recycling infrastructure, drawing sources away from an current system in determined want of enchancment and funding. It might additionally divert efforts away from upstream options, corresponding to discount and reuse. Chemical recycling might create an incentive to maintain producing plastic waste by enabling corporations to construct new provide chains which might be depending on this waste for inputs. We run the chance of encouraging pointless plastic consumption as many corporations eagerly hunt down methods to fulfill bold waste mitigation commitments by 2025.
We run the chance of encouraging pointless plastic consumption as many corporations eagerly hunt down methods to fulfill bold waste mitigation commitments by 2025.
Applied sciences corresponding to chemical recycling usually are not inherently good nor unhealthy — it’s how they’re used and applied that issues. Chemical recycling applied sciences could increase the vary of things that may be recycled, however their environmental efficiency stays unproven. For instance, Closed Loop Companions discovered that greenhouse gasoline emissions from chemical recycling vary from 22 p.c to minus-44 p.c throughout particular applied sciences in comparison with new plastic manufacturing from oil or pure gasoline, and it’s persistently extra carbon-intensive than mechanical recycling. At scale, it’s unclear whether or not chemical recycling would scale back emissions over the established order. Moreover, The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ estimated that by 2040, chemical recycling might solely change 5 p.c of present demand for virgin plastic, which poses the query — is it value prioritizing the time and funding wanted to scale?
Each minute, the equal of a dump truck of plastic air pollution is dumped into the ocean — it’s clear we will’t recycle our means out of this rising plastic waste disaster. As a substitute of simply specializing in recycling, which is one side of a fancy materials system, we must always prioritize options that help wide-scale programs change. For instance, decreasing our total single-use plastic consumption and scaling up reuse.
In the end, the plastic waste disaster is just too advanced to depend on any single innovation or intervention to save lots of the day. Each second issues and each greenback invested should repay, which is why we must always solely embrace new applied sciences if we all know they are going to successfully contribute to the larger goal of programs — change. With plastic waste anticipated to triple by 2040, there’s an excessive amount of at stake to get it incorrect.