Chemical recycling: Heads up when choosing the right process

"Dr. Andreas Kicherer with a sample of pyrolysis oil from plastic waste in front of the Steamcracker" by BASF - We create chemistry is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Chemical recycling is not the Holy Grail. But to turn a blind eye would be fundamentally wrong, because we can’t do without it, especially in high-volume food contact applications. What matters is the choice of the ecologically correct process. And it is precisely on this question that the conflicts ignite.


A controversial discussion has flared up about the climate impact of chemical recycling. Industry and NGOs are presenting studies that come to different conclusions. While the EU tends to be pro, Germany still has a tendency to be contra. This is a position that cannot be maintained in the long term.

Because there is currently no way around chemical recycling. It may not be the Holy Grail for solving the plastics recycling issue. But at the moment we simply don’t have the alternatives. Especially in high-volume food contact applications, mechanical recycling is still reaching its limits, as food packaging is the most complex. Because they also have the largest carbon footprint, it is imperative to recycle them.

So if we want to close the loop, we are not faced with a yes-or-no question. We are faced with the question of which chemical process still makes ecological sense. We have to decide this question – and at the same time continue to promote mechanical recycling by investing heavily in infrastructure. Because in the end, a sensible combination of chemical and mechanical recycling will provide the solution. Here, both can contribute with their respective strengths.

Controversial discussions
Recently, a number of studies have been published on the climate impact of chemical recycling. The results and their respective interpretations have led to fierce controversies that divide regulators, NGOs and industry.

Whereas studies by BASF or CE Delft, for example, prove the climate benefits of chemical recycling, a recently published study by various NGOs with the participation of Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DHU) comes to a different conclusion.

There is also no agreement at the political level. For example, the EU has already classified chemical recycling as a permissible recycling process for plastic packaging in its waste directive and packaging directive. Many EU countries have followed suit. Germany, on the other hand, continues to hold back and has so far excluded chemical recycling in its national packaging law. The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) cites the lack of data for an economic and ecological assessment as the reason.

The UBA is not entirely wrong in this. It is undisputed that chemical recycling is energy-intensive. The question of whether thermal recycling with simultaneous new production from so-called “virgin plastic” would not be more climate-positive has not yet been answered. For this reason, the EU will continue to monitor chemical recycling critically with a view to the climate targets.

The path
If we cannot do without chemical recycling, we must face the task of a differentiated evaluation of the individual processes. This includes further research on the ecological impact and specifically on the climate issue. It is already clear that there are relevant differences between pyrolysis, depolymerization and solvent processes.

At the same time, we must continue to massively promote the infrastructure for mechanical recycling. Because only in this way can we fully exploit the potential of mechanical recycling that is already available to us today – while identifying the most ecologically sensible process for chemical recycling.

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