Plastic pyrolysis threatens Paris Agreement climate change goals, warns Zero Waste Europe
The non-profit urges the European Commission to prioritize mechanical recycling to boost recyclate availability
27 Sep 2022 --- A study published today by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) has found that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from plastic packaging pyrolysis are nine times higher than that of mechanical recycling. Accordingly, ZWE is urging the European Commission (EC) and industry leaders to prioritize the scale up of mechanical recycling to meet growing demand for recycled content.
In the context of the upcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) revision, the EC assigned the independent consultancy Eunomia to consider the possible introduction of recycled content targets for plastic packaging by 2030.
Based on the estimated future recycling content targets, Eunomia determined to recycle quantities that must come as outputs from chemical or mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling, in this case, means thermo-chemical (i.e., pyrolysis) recycling. Pyrolysis is a common technique used to convert plastic waste into energy in the form of solid, liquid and gaseous fuels.
Chemical recycling is viewed by some as crucial to establishing a circular economy for hard-to-recycle plastics, with global plastics recycling rates still desperately low. Last year, Rabobank monitored “plenty of activity” in chemical recycling, including traceability solution trials, new plant announcements, partnerships, acquisitions and equity stakes. There are also new players entering the industry, especially in Asia.
However, ZWE’s chemical recycling and plastic-to-fuel policy officer, Lauriane Veillard, argues that the PPWD revision should serve as a lever to make the packaging sector more circular and align with European climate commitments to limit Global Warming to 1.5 °C.
“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 of plastic packaging,” she says.
The report’s findings
The Climate impact of pyrolysis of waste plastic packaging in comparison with reuse and mechanical recycling study is based on the EC’s estimated future recycling content targets in plastic packaging.
Commissioned by ZWE and the Rethink Plastic alliance to Öko-Institut, the study calculated the impact of Eunomia’s proposed scenario regarding GHG emissions and carbon loss. It compared seven scenarios to meet the projected recycled content target by 2030 and put them into perspective with the Paris Agreement commitments.
The study found that:
- Pyrolysis GHG emissions are nine times higher than those in mechanical recycling – in all scenarios considered over 75% of greenhouse gas 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.
- Mechanical recycling must be prioritized over pyrolysis wherever possible – shifting 30% of the production attributed to chemical recycling by Eunomia to mechanical recycling would reduce GHG emissions by 31%.
- Combining this shift to more mechanical recycling together with a reduction of 20% of packaging would result in a 45% reduction of GHG emissions compared to the “chemical recycling scenario.”
- Combining mechanical and chemical recycling to transform plastic waste into recyclate avoids the GHG emissions associated with the use of primary plastic.
Meanwhile, Edward Kosior, CEO and founder of Nextloopp, an initiative pioneering food-grade mechanically-recycled PP from post-consumer packaging, points out that comparisons of GHGs between mechanical recycling and pyrolysis processes have always shown that mechanical recycling was preferable, with pyrolysis being at least double that of mechanical recycling.
“This figure, let alone the validation of the new comparison, should be compelling evidence that mechanical recycling should be the preferred option for recovering and remanufacturing plastics,” he tells PackagingInsights.
Legal safeguards for mechanical recycling
ZWE urges the EC to consider the report’s findings in the PPWD revision and introduce legal safeguards to prioritize mechanical recycling. The non-profit also wants consideration given to the climate impact of different recycling technologies when setting recycled content targets and incentivization measures, such as design for recycling and innovations along the plastic packaging value chain, to support mechanical recycling.
Veillard continues: “If we are serious about achieving a net-zero emission economy, mechanical recycling must be preferred over pyrolysis. However, this cannot be achieved unless legal safeguards as part of the PPWD revision are introduced to prioritize mechanical processes for recycling packaging waste, complemented with ambitious prevention and reuse targets.”
“Mechanical recycling is already in place and is a well-known process with the possibility to scale up more easily to meet the demand for recycled content. Also, we are at the very onset of making things recyclable,” she tells PackagingInsights.
“We shouldn’t use pyrolysis as an excuse to keep the status quo, also because it’s a very inefficient process. In line with our position paper, pyrolysis should focus on degraded and contaminated plastics as a last resort.”
Meanwhile, she adds that packaging suppliers can help improve mechanical recycling rates through different measures, such as design for mechanical recycling through the development of monomaterial packaging, simpler formats and the removal of hazardous substances.
Kosior agrees, highlighting that there must be an immediate program to eliminate difficult-to-recycle plastic products. “Otherwise, brand owners and converters need to spend R&D budgets to solve the problem they create every day without apparent attention to the magnitude of what is happening,” he says.
“Right now, more plastics are still being incinerated as a part of energy-from-waste production than being recycled with consequential emissions. This issue can be fixed through proactive programs with consumer and local authority and waste collector groups. This change will generate much more feedstock for recycling.”
The EC’s “recycling” definition
The EC recently confirmed that “recycling” means any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances, whether for the original or other purposes. The interpretation includes reprocessing organic material but does not include energy recovery and processing.
“The definition is technology-neutral,” highlights Veillard. “Therefore, from the legal perspective, any process that leads to turning waste into products, materials or substances as recycling provides that two uses of those are excluded, which are energy recovery (reprocessing into fuels or backfilling operations).”
“What is important in chemical recycling are the elements that relate to energy recovery and reprocessing of materials into fuels to be used as fuels. Whenever this is the case, we don’t talk about recycling but the recovery of waste.”
“Apart from the legal definition, there is interest in pyrolysis as a solution to polyolefins (flexible packaging) to food-grade materials. However, there is still a question on how the recycled content from these processes could be determined, as the traceability of recycled content in pyrolysis is very challenging if not impossible.”
By Joshua Poole
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