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.

Global recycling sector under pressure

As Australians adapt to a new social and economic order, the global scrap recycling industry is understandably, slowing down. The ambassadors of the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) have compiled a wrap-up of how each country under siege is adjusting.

According to BIR, the situation in the United States of America varies from state to state. California has shut down all non-essential industries, but recycling is considered to be essential as it is an important link in the supply chain. However, business is very slow. It is possible to buy and sell but exporting is very tough with no availability of containers.

Smelters closed in Italy

In Europe, Italy has closing smelters as part of the strategy to control the pandemic by shutting all non-essential companies. Owing to a shortage of workers in France, most small to medium-sized businesses are closed. Large enterprises are partially open, with only 40 percent of yards in operation. While there is no more retail business, they are being supplied by those production plants still in operation.

In the UK recycling has been included in the category of critical industries and it appears that larger operators saw a flurry of activity last week, as smaller counterparts attempted to turn stock into money. Some merchants have closed their doors.

In Saudi Arabia, there has been a shift to stringent measures being applied to recycling plants between 7am and 6pm, with a curfew in place for the intervening hours. Factories and ports are still open.

The United Arab Emirates  is still operating yards in Sharjah operation however the report said that business is slow for both ferrous and non-ferrous metals. Local mills are struggling in terms of both taking deliveries and payments, while export activity is minimal as the buyers are not there.

Yards are closed in Kuwait and in Lebanon, although the latter’s ports are still open. For the Middle East in general, policy changes are coming daily, building up the uncertainty over April deliveries and supplies worldwide.

India comes to a halt

In India, the situation is dire with Mumbai in total lockdown and no-one can leave their home in many parts of Gujarat. The government had announced a raft of closures, including stopping trains up to March 3. Pakistan, meanwhile, is in partial lockdown and yards are not working normally.

There is no official lockdown in Singapore and while plants are technically open for business. Practically nothing is happening because most workers are either Chinese, who haven’t returned since the Chinese New Year holidays, or Malaysians who can’t return because of border closures. There is also massive logistical disruption to container shipments.

Malaysia is effectively in lockdown regarding import cargoes, with only essential goods permitted. With recycling products not categorised as essential, imports are not being allowed at present.

BIR is the only global recycling industry federation representing around 800 companies and 35 affiliated national recycling associations from 70 different countries. Its members are world leaders in the supply of raw materials and a key pillar for sustainable economic development.

Ambassadors are appointed by the president and represent the organisation around the world. Working on a voluntary basis, they provide information about BIR activities in their respective working regions.