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.

How Amsterdam is future proofing its waste management

An Automatic Waste Collection System (AWCS) is being installed in a residential area in Sluisbuurt, Amsterdam using energy efficient  technology with non-corrosive pipe networks.

MariMatic which developed the MetroTaifun technology was chosen by tender to deliver the new system to Sluisbuurt, a new neighbourhood comprising 5500 new homes and includes schools, shops and offices. In addition to the automatic waste collection system AWCS system, the area will be equipped with other kind of sustainable technologies, such as district heating from renewable energy.

Waste is collected and transported directly from the buildings through an underground pipe network by using vacuum conveying to a waste transfer terminal, eliminating noisy and polluting traditional waste trucks from the area.

Four different waste fractions are collected to separate containers located in the waste transfer terminal. The containers will then later on be picked up for further distribution to recycling centres.

The waste transfer terminal, which is part of the scope of the contract, called The Diamond, will be located in the park. The building is designed with high sustainability in mind, including solar panels, rainwater collection and even a charging point for the service cars. Part of the walls will be glass, giving the public possibility to view the pneumatic collection in action.

The public tender in Amsterdam was focused on technology, reliability, performance, quality, and a technical life cycle of 60 years.

300 mm diameter ‘composite piping’, is being used instead of the commonly used 500 mm carbon steel piping systems. Due to absence of corrosion, longer life cycle of the systems is achieved. Interruptions of possible blockages are minimized, as the waste easier fills up the pipe, giving higher vacuum force for conveying.

Development of MariMatic’s formator technology also enables the use of larger waste bags (150 litre) in 300 mm size piping while the company’s Ring-Line configuration allows change of air flow direction, to facilitate removal of possible blockages.