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Environmental Group critical of chemical recycling

GAIA says the industry favored method is energy intensive

by Alexander H. Tullo
June 8, 2020

Credit: Agilyx
Agilyx depolymerizes polystyrene in Tigard, Oregon.

In a new report, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) takes aim at chemical recycling methods for plastic recycling, such as pyrolysis and depolymerization, which have been embraced by the chemical and oil industries. The environmental group says chemical recycling poses environmental hazards and is not technologically feasible at a large enough scale to solve the plastic waste problem.

Many chemical companies have been promoting chemical recycling as an alternative to mechanical recycling. For mechanical recycling, which is based on sorting and washing plastics, attaining purity and properties similar to virgin materials is a tall order. Chemical recycling schemes, in contrast, recover the original raw materials.

“While such a solution may seem ideal, sound engineering practice or common sense shows that chemical recycling is not the answer to society’s problem of plastic waste,” Andrew Neil Rollinson, who coauthored the report, said in a statement. “It represents a dangerous distraction from the need for governments to ban single-use and unnecessary plastic, while simultaneously locking society into a ‘business as usual’ future of more oil and gas consumption.”

Among its critiques of chemical recycling, the report says pyrolysis can produce dangerous by-products such as toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The chemical recycling processes, the report points out, also require massive amounts of energy to transform waste into plastics again. The report says that a lack of research on chemical recycling allows it to be “portrayed above and well beyond its capabilities.”

Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, a US industry trade group, put out a statement following release of the GAIA report that cites an Argonne National Laboratory study that said that fuels produced via plastic pyrolysis are 96% less energy intensive to make than conventionally produced diesel fuel (Fuel, 2017, DOI: 10.1016/j.fuel.2017.04.070).

Christman also claimed that since mid-2017, companies have invested $5 billion in recycling, of which 80% was in advanced recycling.



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Janek Vahk (June 9, 2020 12:25 AM)
Fuels derived from fossil waste will never be low-carbon. Some manufacturers claim that their fuel cuts the emissions of conventional, diesel or petrol fuel in half. However, studies on fuels have shown that there is a correlation between the amount of fossil waste and the carbon footprint of the fuel. Put simply, the more fossil waste there is in municipal solid waste turned to fuels, the worse their climate impact will be.

When municipal solid waste containing 65% of non-biogenic waste (mostly plastic) is turned into fuel, the emissions range between 52,6 gCO2eq/MJ to 124,6 gCO2eq/MJ. When all of the waste going into the fuel production process is non-renewable, these figures increase, making the impact worse than that of conventional diesel, petrol or kerosene. Even if there are some reductions in emissions, they range from 1-14% compared to conventional fuels.

See LCA guide for fuels from plastic - Counting Carbon

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