Is chemical recycling of plastic waste the climate solution we need?

Based on a report by the OECD released in February 2022,  globally only 9% of plastic waste is recycled. Additionally, only 19% is incinerated, 50% ends up in landfills and 22% evades waste management systems and ends up in uncontrolled dump sites. Furthermore, plastics account for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas and plastic production doubled from 2000 to 2019 to reach 460 million tonnes.

A scene outside the ever-crowded Kottur Market in Chennai
A scene outside the ever-crowded Kottur Market in Chennai | Courtesy: India Water Portal/Flickr

Read more: Plastic pollution is growing relentlessly as waste management and recycling fall short, says OECD

Techniques like chemical recycling of plastics can be utilized to obtain usable materials from plastic scraps and wastes.

Chemical recycling of plastic waste

According to the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), chemical recycling is a process that breaks down plastics into building blocks. Then, converts them into valuable usable secondary raw materials.

There are three recycling routes to treat plastic waste:

  1. Dissolution: extracting plastic
  2. Depolymerisation: breaking down into basic building blocks
  3. Conversion: turning it into raw materials

Read more: Chemical Recycling: Making Plastics Circular – cefic.org

As explained by the Royal Society of Chemistry, chemical recycling is an umbrella term for various technologies that use heat or chemical processes or both to break apart the polymer chain within plastic wastes. The polymer within the plastic chains is broken down into a monomer, which is the building block of a particular type of polymer. These monomers are then made to react within themselves or another type of monomer to create a new polymer which in the end forms a different plastic along with some by-products.

Read more: Greenhouse gas emission reduction potential of an emerging waste management route

Benefits of the chemical recycling of plastic waste
Workers in the Recycling Center (Materials Recovery Facility) at the Shady Grove Transfer Station‎, Montgomery County, Maryland |
Courtesy: USEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency, Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Benefits of the chemical recycling of plastic waste

Another report by the CEFIC on plastic life cycle assessment states that chemical recycling can address the global resource shortage by increasing the proportion of recycled plastics and providing feedstocks, to replace feedstocks from traditional fossil sources. Chemical recycling of plastics also contributes to the circular economy.

Read more: Chemical Recycling

Chemical recycling is a more sustainable end-of-life management option for mixed plastic waste compared to incineration, landfilling, and dumping. Chemical recycling of plastics is also considered to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared to incineration of the same waste.

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