Resource Use

ZWE: Mechanical recycling of plastic packaging should be prioritised over pyrolysis

A new study, commissioned by non-profit Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) and Rethink Plastic alliance to Öko-Institut, has found that greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from mechanical recycling are lower than those from chemical recycling ‘by a factor of nine’. ZWE’s report takes chemical recycling to mean ‘thermo-chemical (i.e. pyrolysis)’.

plastic packaging The European Commission (EC) assigned Eunomia to assess the possible introduction of recycled content targets for plastic packaging by 2030, as a revision to the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD). The consultancy determined to recycle quantities that must come as outputs from chemical recycling or mechanical recycling – ZWE’s study contemplates the impact of this proposal.

Seven scenarios are presented within the study to identify the effect that Eunomia’s proposed scenario, regarding GHG emissions and carbon loss, may have – and whether there is potential to meet the projected recycled content target. These scenarios are also contextualised within Paris Agreement commitments.

For plastic recycled content targets, two scenarios were proposed – medium (30 per cent) and ambitious (40 per cent). In the medium and ambitious scenarios for the recycled content, the necessary recycling capacities were estimated and given as an output of material.

Under these conditions, Eunomia judged chemical recycling ‘as the only solution for the production of recyclate for use in contact sensitive packaging’. However, the study argues that there are ways to achieve this through mechanical recycling.

The study calculates the impact of Eunomia's proposed scenario and compares it to other possible scenarios that include two aspects – the reduction of the total amount of plastic packaging waste, and a shift from Eunomia’s proposed scenario based on chemical recycling towards more mechanical recycling.

It is concluded that mechanical and chemical recycling technologies should be combined in the best possible way’ in order to respect the Paris Agreement commitments.

‘Over 75 per cent of GHG emissions are attributable to chemical recycling’

Findings from the study point to pyrolysis GHG emissions being ‘nine times higher’ than those of mechanical recycling – ZWE highlights that over 75 per cent of GHG emissions are attributable to chemical recycling.

Over half of the carbon content of plastic is lost in the pyrolysis process and has to be replaced by new plastic, the non-profit also states. As a result, it is suggested that mechanical recycling must be prioritised over pyrolysis wherever possible, as ‘30 per cent of the production attributed to chemical recycling by Eunomia to mechanical recycling would reduce GHG emissions by 31 per cent’.

The study adds that combining increased mechanical recycling with a reduction of 20 per cent in packaging would also result in a 45 per cent reduction of GHG emissions compared to the ‘chemical recycling scenario’.

Further, ZWE finds that merging mechanical and chemical recycling to transform plastic waste into recyclate may avoid the GHG emissions associated with the use of primary plastic.

Recommendations to EC

ZWE is urging the European Commission (EC) to consider the reports’ findings in the upcoming revision of the PPWD.

As well as this, the non-profit asks the EC to:

Introduce legal safeguards to prioritise mechanical recycling over pyrolysis
Evaluate the climate impact of different recycling technologies when setting targets for recycled content
Incentivise measures such as design for recycling and innovations along the plastic packaging value chain to facilitate mechanical recycling

‘Revision of the PPWD should serve as a lever to make the packaging sector more circular’

Commenting on the study’s findings and an upcoming revision of the PPWD Lauriane Veillard, ZWE’s Chemical Recycling and Plastic-to-Fuel Policy Officer, says: “If we are serious about achieving net-zero emission economy, mechanical recycling must be preferred over pyrolysis.

“However, this cannot be achieved unless legal safeguards as part of the P&PWD revision are introduced to prioritise mechanical processes for recycling packaging waste complemented with ambitious prevention and reuse targets.

“The revision of the PPWD should serve as a lever to make the packaging sector more circular and be in line with European climate commitments to limit Global Warming to 1.5 Degrees Celsius. There are other ways than pyrolysis for contact-sensitive materials.

“The climate impact of the managing pathways should be considered when setting targets. The revision is the opportunity to rethink the overall volume and the use we make of plastic packaging."