End Plastics

Chemical Recycling: Savior or Saboteur?

Plastic is piling up around us. We keep creating more and more single-use plastics each day and sending them directly to landfills. By making this non-biodegradable waste for so many years, we’ve created a global problem that we can’t seem to escape. We try to give plastics a second life with recycling, but so few recyclables are actually sent to the correct facilities and reused. The writing seems to be on the wall: the plastics crisis is too complex for one simple solution.

But where conventional recycling has failed in dealing with excessive plastic waste, a different sort of recycling promises to excel. Proponents of chemical recycling claim that this process is the future of plastic waste, but others are quick to point out its harmful effects. 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?

What is chemical recycling?

Chemical recycling is an umbrella term encompassing several different technologies designed to extract base chemicals and polymers from plastic. It can be used as a complement to mechanical recycling by breaking down difficult products, such as films and laminated plastics, thus creating a recycling system that is able to process a wider variety of plastic items. By reducing polymers to their “building blocks,” chemical recycling can also produce recycled material with the integrity of virgin plastics. 

The complicated and technical methods of chemical recycling include gasification, hydro-cracking, and most importantly, pyrolysis. This last process holds great potential because it can convert plastic waste into oil that can be used for furnaces, boilers, turbines, and diesel engines, thereby keeping plastics out of landfills while simultaneously reducing our reliance on extracting additional fossil fuels for plastic production. 

In addition to plastic and energy outputs, pyrolysis results in byproducts such as char, a carbon-rich material that can be sold off and used for cookstoves, road surfacing, and improving 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. 

Adopting this technology appears to be an obvious fix for our plastics crisis, and the plastics industry would seem to agree, as there are already 11 facilities currently operating across the U.S. alone. But scientists and environmentalists claim that the process is rife with significant environmental and health downsides that only exacerbate existing concerns. 

The bigger (and darker) picture 

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. 

These industry practices are especially concerning because studies have shown that these facilities and disposal sites are located in low-income areas and communities of color. Environmental justice advocates say that these communities already suffer health outcomes from other industries that release toxic chemicals into the environment, and these chemical recycling facilities will only make the problem worse. It also requires a significant amount of energy, producing more greenhouse gas emissions and negating the supposed benefits from producing alternative fuel. 

Putting environmental and health concerns aside, opponents say the process requires significant improvements before it can be widely adopted. Even those who support chemical recycling claim that scalability is a sizable obstacle, one that cannot be easily overcome without substantial infrastructure improvements and government investment. But is this the most promising solution that the government should be funding? 

The major problem with chemical recycling is that it absolves the plastic industry of responsibility. By offering this “perfect” solution, companies can continue to produce just as much plastic as ever or even scale up their operations. It does not change the bigger picture, which is that plastic is created from our highly pollutive dependence on fossil fuels. Continuing plastic production with a “business as usual” mindset will only result in more emissions and more overflowing landfills. 

Chemical recycling may seem promising in a vacuum, but the history of conventional recycling reminds us that extending the life cycle of plastic is not sufficient. We need to deal with the issue at the source and demand a reduction in plastic production now. If you agree, sign our Global Plastics Treaty petition to show your support for decisive action to combat plastics.