Chemical Recycling: A Viable Solution to Plastic Waste or Adding to the Problem?

January 31, 2020



NCEL Point of Contact


In the past few years, terms like “chemical recycling,” “pyrolysis,” and “waste-to-energy,” have surfaced as proposed solutions to the growing plastic pollution crisis. In fact, 13 states across the country have already introduced legislation and administrative efforts to increase their reliance on these technologies. But what do all of these terms really mean? How viable are these technologies? And most importantly, are they effective?

Researchers across the world have sought to answer these questions. Using their leading findings and recent news, this blog will provide some insight into the challenges with chemical recycling and the different terms and processes associated with it.

As defined by the European Union, chemical recycling is when plastics are converted into liquids or gas through pyrolysis, gasification, or other methods of heating, and then are recycled into new plastics. This is referred to as “plastic-to-plastic repolymerization.”

In theory, this repolymerization technology does show promise – traditional recycling methods (mechanical recycling) and facilities are limited in the scope of plastics they can recycle, whereas plastic-to-plastic repolymerization can actually utilize most plastics, including those that are difficult to recycle. However, the EU analysis emphasizes that this technology is still in its early stages of development and will require at least another 10 years until it’s commercially viable. The EU also notes that plastic-to-plastic chemical recycling is extremely energy-intensive, costly, and ultimately, does not stop plastic pollution at its source.

Currently, businesses and lawmakers in the U.S. have been using a much broader definition of what constitutes chemical recycling to include both repolymerization and plastics-to-fuels. Plastics-to-fuel, which is also referred to as “waste-to-energy,” is the act of heating or incinerating plastics – oil and gas based products – to break them down to be used as fuel. While plastic-to-plastic repolymerization could be viewed as a form of recycling, burning plastic for fuel does not recycle plastic. 

Beyond its implications for reliance on fossil fuels, incinerating waste is a known public health concern. Incinerators are often located in urban areas and release harmful pollutants like particulate matter, lead, and nitrogen oxides, which are linked to cancer, respiratory illnesses, and more. Furthermore, 79% of the current incinerators in the U.S. are based in low-income communities and communities of color, making it an environmental justice concern as well. 

Certain legislation has already successfully enabled the use of conversion technologies like pyrolysis and gasification by easing regulations and reclassifying these facilities from solid waste to manufacturing facilities, which are typically governed by less-strict regulations. Already legislative and administrative changes have passed in eight states, creating markets for pyrolysis and gasification. 

The debate around chemical recycling builds on the existing argument that the globe cannot recycle its way out of the plastic pollution crisis. Given that only 9% of plastics ever made have been recycled, it is clear that while plastic’s end-of-life management is important, recycling is only a part of the solution.

This is why state legislators around the country are taking active steps towards reducing single-use plastic at its source. In 2019, over 220 bills were considered in 37 states that would curb plastic pollution and numerous were landmark bills. Maine and Maryland passed bans on polystyrene, Vermont signed into law a sweeping prohibition on polystyrene, single-use carryout bags, and straws upon request, and Washington state introduced a precedent-setting extended producer responsibility bill that would make producers responsible for recycling and reusing the waste they create. 

States will continue to move the needle on plastic pollution in 2020, with numerous legislators already having hearings and introducing new bills. NCEL’s plastic pollution website acts as a great resource. Additionally, if you would like to learn more about chemical recycling, NCEL partnered with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) for a webinar detailing the ins and outs of the chemical recycling, its environmental implications, and what state legislators can do.