Is Chemical Recycling A Game Changer Or A Greenwashing Tactic?

Is Chemical Recycling A Game Changer Or A Greenwashing Tactic?

Plastic waste is accumulating without proper recycling. But where conventional recycling has failed, a different sort of recycling called Chemical recycling is seen as a more effective solution for handling large amounts of plastic waste compared to traditional recycling methods. Supporters believe it is the way forward, while critics highlight its negative impacts.

Chemical Recycling

Chemical recycling refers to various technologies that extract base chemicals and polymers from plastic, complementing mechanical recycling by breaking down challenging products like films and laminated plastics. This allows for a more diverse range of plastic items to be recycled. Additionally, by reducing polymers to their “building blocks,” chemical recycling can also produce recycled material with the integrity of virgin plastics. 

Chemical recycling techniques like gasification, hydro-cracking, and pyrolysis are effective in converting plastic waste into oil. Pyrolysis, in particular, has immense potential as it can produce oil that can be used in various applications such as furnaces, boilers, turbines, and diesel engines. This helps in preventing plastics from ending up in landfills and also reduces the need for extracting more fossil fuels for plastic production.

Pyrolysis not only produces plastic and energy, but also generates byproducts like char, which is a valuable carbon-rich material that can be utilized in various ways such as for cookstoves, road construction, and enhancing soil quality.

From start to finish, chemical recycling has the potential to be incredibly profitable — one estimate places revenue opportunities in the U.S. and Canada at $120 billion over the next few years. 

Many believe that using this technology can help solve the plastics crisis, as evidenced by the 11 facilities already operating in the U.S. However, scientists and environmentalists argue that the process has negative environmental and health consequences that worsen existing issues.

Schematic depicting the ways of utilizing plastic wastes through pyrolysis.
The primary concern with chemical recycling is the output and byproducts. Pyrolysis produces gasses in addition to the aforementioned char, which are all highly contaminated from the chemical additives used in the recycling process. Benzene, lead, cadmium, and chromium are just a few of the chemicals involved in chemical recycling that are known to have adverse health effects.

Not only can they enter local air and water around these facilities, but thousands of pounds of hazardous waste each year is generated from recycling plants, shipped across the country, and burned miles away from their point of origin. 

Policymakers, scientists, and environmentalists continue to debate the question: is chemical recycling going to save us, or only plunge us deeper into an environmental crisis?

Reference- Earth Day Network News letter, National Geographic, NRDC wensite, Greenbis website, The Guardian