Whilst making it clear that the real solution to plastic pollution lies in prevention and reuse measures, and an overall reduction in plastic use, the report notes that plastic cannot be endlessly mechanically recycled without reducing its properties and quality, and that not all plastic types can be mechanically recycled. These limits set challenges for plastics recycling and show the need for significant improvements in the end-of-life management of plastics.
Chemical Recycling could be a complementary solution to mechanical recycling where the latter is unsuited to materially recover plastic because it is too degraded, contaminated or too complex. On the flipside, it could also become the new plastics El Dorado if plastic to fuels is allowed.
It should also be taken into account that Chemical Recycling is not yet a mature technology, and is not viable in the short term and this is a key factor to consider when designing the EU Circular Economy.
The report emphasises the importance of setting up the right policy framework in order to accommodate CR as complementary to mechanical recycling and to ensure that carbon stays in the plastic and is not released into the environment. For this to happen ZWE recommends the following amendments to current waste legislation:
- Come up with a clear definition of CR that excludes any operation that does not result in the production of new plastic.
- Only processes with a lower carbon footprint than the production of plastic from virgin feedstock can be classified as CR.
- CR should be used to deal with degraded and contaminated plastics and never with plastics coming from separate collection.
- Establish verification systems to ensure CR process outputs plastic and plastic feedstocks; facilities licensed for chemical recycling should not produce fuel as primary output.
- In order to avoid competition with mechanical recycling, but also to differentiate from recovery and disposal operations, a new level in the waste hierarchy should be added for those operations that recover materials from mixed waste that today would end up burned or landfilled.
- For coherence with EU Climate and Circular Economy agendas EU funding should only be allowed to finance plastic to plastic chemical operations.
„The Chemical Recycling hype should not divert attention from the real solution to plastic pollution which is replacing single-use plastics, detoxifying and simplifying new plastics, and designing business models to make efficient use of plastics“, says Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director, Zero Waste Europe.
CR can have a role to play in closing the material loop and moving away from disposal and recovery operations, up the waste hierarchy. But the best option to curb plastic pollution from an environmental and economic perspective is to invest in reduction and reuse solutions and ensure that no plastic escapes the material loop via plastic to fuels.
Allowing plastic to fuels to be considered CR risks creating a loophole in EU Climate and Circular Economy legislation.