Explained: Chemical Recycling

Research by Kalindi Rana and Ankita Soni

Our new ‘Explained’ feature offers a quick dive into new technologies, applications, and market opportunities.

In this issue, we explore chemical recycling and look at the tailwinds supporting its growth.

A planet of plastic

Over the last 30 years, plastic consumption has quadrupled, reaching 460 million tons in 2019.

The UN Environmental Programme estimates that if historic growth trends continue, global production of primary plastic could reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050.

Despite the large volume of waste, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled globally.

Around half of it ends up in landfills, while 22% evades waste management altogether and is burned in open pits, lands in uncontrolled dumpsites, or ends up polluting the natural environment.

What is chemical recycling?

In traditional mechanical recycling, plastic is crushed and remelted into pellets to make new products. With chemical recycling, heat or chemical processes are used to split the polymer chains, resulting in materials with the qualities of brand-new resin.

Image credit: Royal Society of Chemistry

For plastics that can’t be easily mechanically recycled, chemical recycling provides could help reduce the volume of materials going to landfills or incineration. Here’s a look at some of the key differences.

Regulatory drivers supporting the growth of chemical recycling

Chemical recycling is gaining momentum, particularly in Europe where recent policies and legislation is providing indirect support for the practice.

The EU Plastics Strategy: States all plastic packaging must be recyclable by 2030 and places limits on microplastics.

EU Circular Plastics Alliance: Set a goal to use 10 million tons of recycled plastic to make new products every year by 2025.

The EU Circular Economy Package: Calls to reduce landfill to a maximum of 10% of municipal waste by 2035.

The UK’s 2020 Plastic Packaging Tax applies to plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled content.

France’s 2021 Anti-Waste & Circular Economy law bans the destruction of unsold non-food products.

In 2022, Spain became the first country in the EU to officially include chemical recycling in a piece of legislation.

Commercial drivers supporting the growth of chemical recycling

The market for is also being driven by companies seeking to meet sustainability targets, including ‘off-takers’ of recycled plastic. Many are among the world’s largest oil and gas and chemical companies.

In 2022, BP signed a 10-year agreement with UK-based Clean Planet Energy to offtake petrochemical feedstocks and ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) derived from plastic waste.

TotalEnergies aims to produce 30% circular polymers by 2030 and has contracts with Honeywell and Indaver to purchase recycled polymer and petrochemical feedstock.

In 2021, Shell Chemicals Europe BV signed a strategic cooperation and offtake agreement for pyrolysis oil made from recycled plastic waste with Pryme BV.

BASF signed a similar agreement with Pryme BV in 2022 and launched a ChemCycling project in 2018 to manufacture products from plastic waste on an industrial scale.

We will continue to monitor the growth of chemical recycling – not just in Europe but also in the US, where, in the last five years, 18 states have passed laws promoting the practice.

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