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Study:Is chemical recycling just making fuel?

A new report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) has examined the efficacy of chemical recycling facilities, finding shallow results.

Chemical recycling is a recycling process where plastic waste is processed into fuels or back into the chemical building blocks that originally form the plastics. It’s considered key to the circular economy where there is no such thing as waste, just feedstock for new plastics.

GAIA looked at the 37 chemical recycling facilities proposed since the 2000s and found that only three were actually operating, and that none of them were actually recovering plastic in any way that could be considered “circular.”

Instead, it appears they are pushing “plastic to fuel” (PTF) using pyrolysis or gasification, and just burning it. US experts say that PTF is often considered a good thing because plastic is, a solid fossil fuel, so we can get double use out of it. But that’s not the case, the researchers argue, primarily because “PTF carries a large carbon footprint that is not compatible with a climate-safe future. It only adds to global carbon emissions created by the fossil fuel industry.”

Toxic PTF

This is due to the fuel and resources used to pick it up, process it, cook it, and then burn it. Making PTF is also toxic, they claim.

According to the study, plastic often contains toxic additives and contaminants that are known to be harmful to human health and are not effectively filtered out from the “chemical recycling” process or may form during the process, risking exposure to workers, communities near facilities, consumers, and the environment. For example, hormone disruptors and carcinogens such as bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalates, benzene, brominated compounds, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in plastic and not effectively filtered out from end-products including fuel. Depending on the type of plastic being processed, other chemicals may form and end up in the final product, such as benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, hydrogen cyanide, PBDEs, PAHs, and high-temperature tars, among many others.

Making waste disappear

What it is really doing is making waste plastic disappear, so that new plastic cheaper and easier to use can be made in the new petrochemical plants.

The petrochemical industry has pushed back on plastic bans and other policies to curb plastic use, 46 have used the COVID-19 pandemic to claim that single-use plastic was safer and more hygienic than plastic alternatives.

Meanwhile, many petrochemical companies point to PTD and “chemical recycling” as key solutions to the plastic waste crisis and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Dow, Shell, and others give financial backing to projects like Hefty Energy Bag.

According to Gaia, “As policymakers push industry to move away from fossil fuels and plastic, the future of the plastic-to-fuel industry is at best questionable and at most a distraction from addressing the root cause of the world’s plastic waste crisis.

“The “chemical recycling” industry has struggled with decades of technological difficulties and poses an unnecessary risk to the environment and health and a financially risky future that is incompatible with a climate-safe future and circular economy.

“Chemical recycling, at least as is happening now, is just an elaborate and expensive version of waste-to-energy. There is no point, other than it makes waste disappear. Given the amount of CO2 it generates, from a climate point of view, we would be better off just burying it, and we are not going back there. The only real way to deal with this is to stop making so much of the stuff in the first place, to reuse, refill, and to go truly circular,” GAIA concludes.