Lorax EPI

Chemical recycling - what actually is it?
by Annis Mapleston at 09:23 in Circular Economy, Packaging, Origin

​With increasing numbers of countries starting to mandate the use of recycled material in plastic packaging (see our previous blog for more details), where will we get enough recycled plastic from?

recycled plastic.jpg

There are three main types of plastic recycling:

  • Mechanical: using heat and shear to convert waste material into recycled material of the same type;
  • Physical (or dissolution): using solvents or other chemicals to separate polymers from other waste types, without breaking the polymer chain;
  • Chemical: breaking polymers down to monomers or new raw materials through cracking, gasification or depolymerisation.

Mechanical recycling is the most common method by far, but interest in chemical recycling is growing.

Chemical recycling has several advantages:

  • It can be used for several waste streams that are unsuitable for mechanical recycling, such as those with high levels of impurities (e.g. ocean plastics), thermoset plastics, and waste with components that are difficult to separate (e.g. multilayer packaging);
  • It can be used to complement mechanical recycling, by accepting both small items that are not captured at waste sorting plants and waste from mechanical recycling processes;
  • Its output is equivalent to virgin raw materials (e.g. natural gas or oil), so can theoretically be used for any application - including food contact packaging.

However, it also comes with some challenges:

  • There are typically lower yields than from mechanical recycling processes, with less recycled product obtained;
  • It often has a greater environmental impact, due to the lower yields and greater number of processes required;
  • It has more inherent risks than mechanical recycling.
Opinion is still divided internationally on the value of chemical recycling: some nations (often those with better developed mechanical recycling systems) are investigating its potential, whilst others are discouraging its use by excluding its output from recycled content calculations.

Lorax EPI is monitoring the emergence of recycled content requirements and acceptance of chemical recycling: please contact us for more information on how we can help your business adapt to these new demands.

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