Chemical recycling application should be ‘carefully’ considered, says WWF

In a recently published report, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) outlined its position on the implementation of chemical recycling technologies. The NGO urged that such techniques should be applied in line with circular economy principles, noting that they are surrounded by ‘significant concerns’.

Plastic waste balesIn the plastics context, chemical recycling – also known as advanced or molecular recycling – refers to chemical, thermochemical, and combustion processes whereby a proportion of the treated plastic waste is turned into chemical building blocks. This material is then able to be recycled into other plastics, including plastic that can be used for food-grade applications.

The position paper, released as part of the NGO’s ‘No Plastic in Nature’ project, states that chemical recycling technologies should be applied in line with circular economy principles, with ‘reduction and reuse’ prioritised as ‘our top strategies’. Where materials lack a viable reuse system, recycling processes will ‘be critical in keeping materials and value circulating in the system’, and divert plastic from landfill, incineration, or littering.

Proponents of chemical recycling technologies highlight their potential to address the dual issues of fossil fuel dependence and global plastic pollution, pointing to their ability to ‘fill the gap’ in current recycling by providing an alternative waste management option for items not currently recycled, and recycle material back to virgin-like quality.

Trade association PlasticsEurope is amongst those advocating for the implementation of chemical recycling technologies. In a statement last year, the association claimed that scaling up such technology was ‘essential’ in achieving EU targets on recycled content for plastics packaging, affirming that members were ‘already working towards’ the target by investing in ‘new technology solutions’.

However, WWF warns that, based on currently available evidence, there are ‘significant concerns’ that these technologies are ‘energy-intensive, pose risks to human health, and/or will not be able to practically recycle plastic beyond what mechanical recycling already achieves.’ The available evidence, WWF asserts, also fails to robustly verify claims of environmental performance, and ‘lacks transparency’, with the NGO calling for claims to be ‘true, clear and relevant’.

The position paper states that, if these risks are not addressed, the implementation of such techniques could ‘increase carbon emissions’ and fail to ‘fundamentally increase current recycling rates’, potentially undermining current recycling infrastructure and circular economy development.

WWF’s paper recommends that, if applied, chemical recycling technologies should be ‘complementary’ to existing waste management systems, and not compete for feedstocks with mechanical recycling. Plastic waste streams should also be matched to the ‘most environmentally efficient technology available’, which the NGO asserts would ‘ensure the whole system operates with the smallest environmental footprint possible’.

The paper also notes that only ‘material-to-material’ applications should be considered recycling, with ‘plastic-to-fuel’ activities, which ‘do not offset virgin plastic entering the system’, falling outside circular thinking. Chemical recycling technologies, WWF urges, should not be used to transform recyclable material into non-recyclable material.

Commenting on the position paper, Alix Grabowski, Director of Plastic and Material Science at WWF, stressed that the design and implementation of chemical recycling technologies should be ‘carefully’ considered: “Even as technologies advance, we can’t recycle our way out of the growing plastic waste crisis. Instead of just focusing on recycling, we should prioritize strategies like reducing our overall single-use plastic consumption and scaling up reuse, which offer the best opportunity to achieve the widescale change we need.

“For a technology like chemical recycling to be part of a sustainable material management system, we must carefully look at how its designed and implemented and whether or not it offers environmental benefits over the status quo, adheres to strong social safeguards, and truly contributes to advancing our circular economy. These principles are designed to do exactly that.”