Beyond Plastic

New report shines light on the problems with ‘chemical recycling’

Chemical recycling -- or burning plastic -- causes significant environmental harms.

Large pile of single-use plastic bottles
Huguette Roe |

A study published by the Federal Governments Renewable Energy Lab, comparing mechanical and chemical recycling, is shining a light on the problems with chemical recycling. Mechanical recycling is the process used by most towns and cities that does not change the chemical makeup of plastic, whereas chemical recycling has an intense use of heat to change plastics’ chemical makeup. It states that mechanical recycling displays better environmental and economic performances than chemical recycling technologies. The study also said chemical recycling processes have worse environmental and economic outcomes than the production of virgin plastics because of the minimal production of “recycled” plastics they produce compared to the input of energy and materials. According to the study, chemical recycling can be 10-100 times worse for the environment than virgin plastic production. It also points out that the claim that chemical recycling can infinitely recycle plastic is not true because only 1%-14% of the plastic material is recycled into new products. 

This is an important study because plastic industry advocates are working to add chemical recycling into recycling legislation at the state level. They propose it as part of the solution to the plastic crisis when in reality it causes worse environmental impacts than virgin plastic. Chemical recycling advocates label this process as advanced recycling and so far 21 states have either classified it as a manufacturing process instead of waste disposal or eased air quality regulations around the process because it is perceived as environmentally friendly. PIRG is working in many states to mitigate this rollback of environmental standards and reduce the need for plastic in the first place. Check out our other plastic campaigns here

Holly Thompson
Holly Thompson

Former Beyond Plastic, Associate, PIRG

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

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