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Chemical Recycling: What Is It and Why Do So Many Environmental Organizations Oppose It?

Chemical recycling, sometimes referred to as advanced recycling, is a technology that is rumored to solve issues presented by traditional recycling methods. Chemical recycling companies claim to take in plastic waste and, in return, make newer and higher quality plastics that can be cheaply purchased and repurposed into new products. However, is this true?

Traditional mechanical recycling takes waste plastic, sorts it, washes it, and then either grinds or melts it down. The end product is a plastic that is diminished in quality and typically takes a different form than its original product. Mechanical recycling also falls short because the processing of contaminated plastics (i.e., plastics with food on them or compounds that cannot go through the specific facility) can be extremely challenging or impossible altogether. Additionally, when the plastics cannot be recycled, they are rerouted to landfills or incinerators.

When chemical recycling was introduced, the challenges presented by traditional methods were supposedly solved. Chemical recycling has been promoted as a solution to traditional recycling methods, claiming to make virgin-quality plastics from waste plastics. The method was marketed as a means to reduce plastic production, limit plastic waste, and increase the economic value of recycled plastic. Yet, the system posed its own challenges: it required high energy consumption and yields low output of recycled material and high levels of toxicity in the environment.

Chemical recycling has significantly higher energy needs than conventional methods, meaning that the process demands more fossil fuels and emits higher levels of greenhouse gases. Additionally, chemical recycling facilities often do not follow through on their statements to take waste plastic and turn it into new, virgin-quality plastics. Rather, these facilities often turn waste plastics into fuels, creating a plastic-to-fuel process rather than a plastic-to-plastic process.

Issues arise with turning plastic into fuel rather than back into plastic, as it furthers the demand for both waste plastic into the facility, as well as the fossil fuels that come out of the facility. Lastly, chemical recycling furthers the production of toxins in the environment by creating fuels with high levels of dioxin: a compound that is highly toxic to the human body. Aside from high levels of toxins in the fuel created in chemical recycling facilities, chemical recycling emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, impacting humans: especially more vulnerable communities that are already subject to environmental injustices.

In theory, chemical recycling was intended to be a solution to the problems that mechanical recycling did not address; in practice, chemical recycling has proved to appear environmentally beneficial at face-value, yet, in reality, it perpetuates pre-existing environmental issues.

So, what can you do? Focus on reducing your own plastic waste, and if you do use plastic, try to reuse it! Reuse of plastic is the quickest way to remove it from the waste cycle, and there are many ways to do so. Get creative with your plastic reduction and reuse, get educated on the issues regarding plastic pollution, and stay positive and hopeful about the environmental issues we face.


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