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The Consumer Goods Forum’s (CGF) Plastic Waste Coalition of Action has published “Chemical Recycling in a Circular Economy for Plastics,” a paper that encourages the development of new plastics recycling technologies that meet six key principles for credible, safe and environmentally sound development. In support of this position paper, the coalition also has published an independent life cycle assessment (LCA) study that shows the chemical recycling of hard-to-recycle plastic could reduce the climate impact of plastic when compared with waste-to-energy incineration.

Guided by the global commitment led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and in line with the newly announced UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, the coalition says it is committed to the growth of the circular economy, having launched its full set of Golden Design Rules for plastic packaging and developing a framework for extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs. The coalition says it also is working to encourage recycling innovation, including chemical recycling to complement the growing mechanical recycling capacity.

In the area of ​​chemical recycling, the coalition says it has established a set of principles for the safe scaling of pyrolysis-based chemical recycling. According to the paper it has released, chemical recycling could increase packaging recycling rates, enabling recyclability targets to be met, specifically for hard-to-recycle plastics, such as postconsumer flexible film. To ensure that chemical recycling is developed and operated under “credible, safe and environmentally sound conditions,” the paper outlines what the coalition says are six key principles related to the technology’s complementarity with mechanical recycling, material traceability, process yields and environmental impact, health and safety and claims.

CGF members say they welcome feedback and engagement on this study and its broader work within the Plastic Waste Coalition of Action.

Barry Parkin, chief sustainability officer of Mars Inc. says, “Chemical recycling is a critical complement to mechanical recycling as it will allow large quantities of flexible packaging to be recycled into food-grade packaging. This study demonstrates that chemical recycling has a significantly lower carbon footprint than the current end of life of flexible packaging.”

“As we continue to reduce the use of virgin plastic, new technologies such as chemical recycling can help drive up recycling rates and increase the availability of food-grade recycled materials,” Colin Kerr, packaging director, Unilever, adds. “The principles and life cycle assessment work from The Consumer Goods Forum is key to ensuring this can happen in a safe and environmentally sound way.”

Llorenç Milà i Canals, head of the Life Cycle Initiative Secretariat, United Nations Environmental Programme, says, “It is crucial to consider all potential environmental impacts across the life cycle of production and consumption systems when assessing technologies such as chemical recycling of plastics. A specific challenge with relatively new technologies is including the chemical composition of discharges, emissions and wastes from facilities, along with the need for additional pollution control equipment and management; these should form part of the assessment. Life cycle assessment is the standardized tool to do just that, ensuring the necessary scrutiny by experts and interested parties; the Consumer Goods Forum has initiated a very useful process to shed light on many of these aspects in this report.”

“Recognizing that reduction and reuse of packaging should be prioritized, and recognizing the limitations of the technology, the paper puts forward the industries’ position on what role pyrolysis CR could play in the transition to a circular economy for plastics and what key principles and boundary conditions it should adhere to,” Sander Defruyt, lead, New Plastics Economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, adds.

The coalition commissioned Chicago-based Sphera to do an independent study looking at the topic of climate change impact. The study was peer-reviewed throughout the process by a panel of experts from UN Environmental Programme, Northwestern University and Eunomia. The study provides a life cycle impact assessment and compares conventional plastics produced from fossil fuels and incinerated at end of life with chemically recycled plastic in a circular system.

The study’s findings demonstrate that chemical recycling of hard-to-recycle mixed plastic waste could reduce the climate impact of plastic when compared with waste-to-energy incineration. Specifically, the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of flexible consumer packaging made from postuse plastic through pyrolysis-based chemical recycling and recycled at end of life is 43 percent lower than plastic films manufactured from fossil fuels and disposed of through incineration at end of life.

Additional details on the findings of the LCA can be found in the Technical Report and the Non-Technical Summary.

However, some nongovernmental organizations have expressed skepticism about chemical recycling, including GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), Berkeley, California, particularly when the technology is used to produce fuels. The organization says these technologies are “falsely marketed as circular, climate-friendly and sustainable” and present “environmental and health drawbacks” that “outweigh any supposed benefits” because they in part produce poor-quality fuels, exacerbate climate change, produce toxic air emissions and byproducts and perpetuate overproduction of plastic.

GAIA refers to chemical recycling as “an industry greenwash term used to refer to various plastic-to-fuel and plastic-to-plastic technologies,” adding, “Although these processes aim to turn plastic into liquids or gases which could be used to make new plastic, the end products are usually burned in practice. Technological variants of this process include pyrolysis, solvolysis and depolymerization. However, regardless of the label, the technology is plastic-to-fuel, aka plastic incineration, if the end products are burned.”

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