The petrochemical industry has created a plastic crisis that accelerates climate change, sickens fenceline communities, contaminates drinking water and food supplies, endangers ecosystems, and pollutes the air, the land, waterways, and the ocean. Plastic pollutes throughout its lifecycle, from extraction to production to dumping and burning, and everything in between. While planning to increase production by 40% in the next decade, industry simultaneously proposes to solve this plastic crisis with a set of technologies it calls “chemical recycling.” Industry uses this term to conflate recycling with plastic-to-fuel, a form of waste to energy. In this respect, BFFP, whose members fight plastic pollution across its lifecycle, rejects this attempt to distract attention from the urgent need to reduce plastic production.
Plastic pollutes throughout its lifecycle, from extraction to production to dumping and burning, and everything in between.
Chemical recycling will not solve the plastic crisis. Plastic production is growing exponentially: at 3.5% to 4% per year, it will nearly quadruple by 2050. As long as plastic production continues to expand, a circular economy for plastic is not possible. Waste management – including recycling – cannot close an ever-expanding gap nor address the climate and toxic emissions from production. A dramatic reduction in plastic manufacturing is the first and most important step to addressing the plastic crisis.
Plastic-to-fuel is not recycling. Under the guise of “chemical recycling,” industry is promoting technologies such as pyrolysis that turn plastic into fuel. As almost all plastic is derived from petroleum and natural gas, plastic-derived fuels are not renewable and not climate-friendly. Downgrading plastic into fuel does not replace virgin polymer and is not a form of recycling, as the European Union Waste Framework Directive makes clear. With ongoing decarbonisation, plastic-derived fuels increasingly threaten to displace renewable energy rather than other fossil fuels.
Plastic-to-fuel is not recycling. Under the guise of “chemical recycling,” industry is promoting technologies such as pyrolysis that turn plastic into fuel.
Chemical recycling raises serious concerns about toxic waste, emissions, and greenhouse gases. Little information is available about the environmental performance of chemical recycling in real-world (not pilot-scale) conditions. The limited data available indicate that these processes are energy-intensive, with a large carbon footprint, and produce large quantities of toxic air emissions, liquid effluent, and solid waste, in part because of toxic additives within waste plastic. Industry must reveal the full environmental impacts of chemical recycling. If facilities are built, they should not be located near communities already burdened with environmental health hazards, and their operations should be strictly monitored and regulated.
Chemical recycling is low on the waste hierarchy. With plastic, reduction is the priority. Where plastics are necessary, they should be designed for safe and easy recycling, without toxic additives. To the extent that chemical recycling may have a role in addressing historical, specialized, or contaminated plastic waste streams, it must not be incentivized to compete with mechanical recycling and other measures higher in the waste hierarchy.
Furthermore, BFFP emphasizes that:
- The real solution to the plastic crisis is to be found in plastic prevention and reuse.
- Recycling means reprocessing materials into products, materials or substances but should categorically exclude any form of waste-to-energy. As such, no plastic-to-fuel operation should ever be allowed under the designation of chemical recycling.
Read more about Chemical Recycling here