What is chemical recycling?

Chemical recycling, also called advanced recycling and recovery, refers to several different processes that use existing and emerging technologies that return post-use plastics to their basic chemical building blocks for creating a versatile mix of new plastics, chemicals, fuels, and other products.

These outputs include:

  • Virgin Like Plastics
  • Specialty Chemicals
  • Basic building blocks (monomers)
  • Chemical feedstocks (naphtha)
  • Fuels
  • Other products (e.g. waxes)

By using chemical recycling to produce these outputs, we help preserve the plastics’ original value and conserve use of fossil-based resources.

Is chemical recycling different than other terms such as advanced recycling and recovery?

The terms advanced recycling and recovery, transformational technologies, and chemical recycling, are interchangeable. All of these terms help differentiate chemical recycling from the more widely known recycling processes that use mechanical technologies to recycle used plastics.

How is chemical recycling different from traditional mechanical recycling?

Mechanical recycling typically uses technologies that retain the original physical form of used plastics; that is, the plastic material (resin) remains mostly the same during mechanical recycling. The used plastics typically are sorted, cleaned, shredded, melted, and then re-extruded into plastic pellets. These pellets are then used in new plastic packaging and other products.

Chemical recycling typically alters the physical form of used plastics, either by dissolving the plastic with chemicals or using heat to break down plastics into their original components. The results are plastics in a purified form or chemical products and feedstocks that are then used to create new plastics, fuels or other products.

Will chemical recycling replace mechanical recycling?

No. Mechanical and chemical recycling are complementary approaches that have different inputs and outputs. For example, mechanical recycling works well for specific resins and forms like bottles and containers, and is well-suited to produce plastics for new durable uses such as pipe, railroad ties and pallets. However, some plastics are difficult to sort and process mechanically. Plus it’s more challenging to use mechanically recycled plastics in food contact applications and packaging. Chemical recycling facilities also have the potential to adjust their outputs depending on fluctuations in market demand.

What is the role of chemical and mechanical recycling in achieving a “circular economy?”

The term “circular economy” refers to an economic model in which materials are repurposed after use rather than disposed. A circular economy differs from the prevailing economic model in which materials are largely disposed after use, which results in large amounts of valuable materials either buried in landfills or littering our ocean and landscape. In a sustainable, circular model, used plastics are recovered and repurposed rather than disposed… a model that not only helps keep plastics out of the environment but also harnesses their inherent value to create new products.

that are not widely recycled today. This combination will help achieve the America’s Plastic Makers’ goal of recycling and recovering 100 percent of used plastic packaging in the U.S. by 2040.

What are the benefits of chemical recycling?

The environmental and economic opportunities of chemical recycling are enormous.

Chemical recycling can contribute significantly to a circular economy in which plastics are repurposed rather than disposed, which helps keep plastics out of the ocean/environment and harnesses their inherent value to create valuable new products. For example, making ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel from used plastics could decrease the consumption of water by 58 percent and the use of traditional energy sources by 96 percent, according to a 2017 study from Argonne National Laboratory.

In addition, chemical recycling can contribute to national and local economies, especially in areas with little or no existing infrastructure to manage and recycle waste. A recent report by Closed Loop Partners (CLP), an organization that invests in the development of the circular economy, found there is tremendous demand for the products of chemical recycling. (See more below under: Is chemical recycling economical?

What types of technologies are used to process plastics in chemical recycling?

There are three primary categories of chemical recycling technologies that process used plastics into new plastics and products.

  • Purification – Used plastic is dissolved in a solvent to remove additives, resulting in a purified near virgin plastic.
  • Decomposition/depolymerization – The molecular bonds of used plastic are broken, resulting in molecules (monomers) from which plastics are made.
  • Conversion – The molecular bonds of used plastic are broken and recombined, resulting in hydrocarbons and chemical feedstocks similar to products made by petroleum refining. 

What types of used plastics (inputs) are processed during chemical recycling?

Multiple types and mixes of plastics can undergo chemical recycling, including polyethylene terephthalate (packaging, clothing), polystyrene (packaging, insulation), polyethylene (packaging, films), polypropylene (packaging, pipes, textiles), electronics (cell phones, electronic hardware), and other mixed plastics.

What types of products (outputs) are created from chemical recycling?

Chemical recycling of plastics can create multiple high value products, including new plastics (polymers); monomers for new plastics; naphtha for new plastics and chemicals; basic chemicals such as methanol that can be used for windshield wiper fluid and cleaning products; transportation fuels for aviation and automobiles; waxes for candles and crayons; and other products like synthetic crude oil.

Who are the customers for the products of chemical recycling?

Manufacturers of industrial and consumer products have the ability to use the products created from chemical recycling. Companies already purchasing the products of chemical recycling or have announced agreements to do so include: BP, Gatorade, H&M, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Unilever, and more. Both United and Delta airlines have announced ventures to produce fuels from used plastics. In addition, some chemical companies are integrating these products and processes into their manufacturing and supply chains, such as Americas Styrenics, BASF, Dow, Eastman, LyondellBasell, and SABIC.

Is chemical recycling economical?

Many of the technologies used in chemical recycling already have been deployed economically in various industrial processes including the production of industrial waxes. Of course, regardless of the technology, collecting, sorting, and processing used plastics presents many challenges, similar to those inherent in mechanical recycling. However, given the broad range of outputs from chemical recycling, the markets for chemical recycling are expansive (see products/outputs and customers above), and recent research has demonstrated vast opportunities both at home and abroad.

What types of technologies are used to process plastics in chemical recycling?

There are three primary categories of chemical recycling technologies that process used plastics into new plastics and products.

  • Purification – Used plastic is dissolved in a solvent to remove additives, resulting in a purified near virgin plastic.
  • Decomposition/depolymerization – The molecular bonds of used plastic are broken, resulting in molecules (monomers) from which plastics are made.
  • Conversion – The molecular bonds of used plastic are broken and recombined, resulting in hydrocarbons and chemical feedstocks similar to products made by petroleum refining. 

What types of used plastics (inputs) are processed during chemical recycling?

Multiple types and mixes of plastics can undergo chemical recycling, including polyethylene terephthalate (packaging, clothing), polystyrene (packaging, insulation), polyethylene (packaging, films), polypropylene (packaging, pipes, textiles), electronics (cell phones, electronic hardware), and other mixed plastics.

What types of products (outputs) are created from chemical recycling?

Chemical recycling of plastics can create multiple high value products, including new plastics (polymers); monomers for new plastics; naphtha for new plastics and chemicals; basic chemicals such as methanol that can be used for windshield wiper fluid and cleaning products; transportation fuels for aviation and automobiles; waxes for candles and crayons; and other products like synthetic crude oil.

Who are the customers for the products of chemical recycling?

Manufacturers of industrial and consumer products have the ability to use the products created from chemical recycling. Companies already purchasing the products of chemical recycling or have announced agreements to do so include: BP, Gatorade, H&M, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, Unilever, and more. Both United and Delta airlines have announced ventures to produce fuels from used plastics. In addition, some chemical companies are integrating these products and processes into their manufacturing and supply chains, such as Americas Styrenics, BASF, Dow, Eastman, LyondellBasell, and SABIC.

Is chemical recycling economical?

Many of the technologies used in chemical recycling already have been deployed economically in various industrial processes including the production of industrial waxes. Of course, regardless of the technology, collecting, sorting, and processing used plastics presents many challenges, similar to those inherent in mechanical recycling. However, given the broad range of outputs from chemical recycling, the markets for chemical recycling are expansive (see products/outputs and customers above), and recent research has demonstrated vast opportunities both at home and abroad.

For example, a 2019 report by the Closed Loop Partners (CLP), an organization that invests in the development of the circular economy, found there is tremendous demand for the products of chemical recycling. CLP: “Our analysis indicates that these technologies could meet an addressable market with potential revenue opportunities of $120 billion in the United States and Canada alone (emphasis added).” CLP identified 60 technology providers with significant potential for growth, along with 250 investors and strategic partners engaged with them and notes: “Technology providers are operating profitably with higher margins as they mature and scale.”

Are plastics burned during chemical recycling?

No. Chemical recycling technologies often use thermal energy (heat), but instead of combusting the plastics, their physical form is altered to form new chemicals, fuels and products. Chemical recycling is a manufacturing process: raw materials (used plastics) are processed to make new products (plastics, chemicals, fuels, etc.), like other manufacturing facilities.

Are there significant emissions or byproducts created during chemical recycling?

The processes used to chemically recycle used plastics either use chemicals or thermal processes in the absence of oxygen so emissions from chemical recycling are generally considered very low.

While some manufacturing processes have the potential to result in environmental discharges, emissions from facilities that use a common chemical recycling technology (pyrolysis) were found to be typically lower compared to many industrial and commercial facilities, such as food manufacturing, hospitals, and universities. This same technology produces a non-hazardous byproduct that can be managed similarly to other solid waste, resulting in waste reduction of approximately 90 percent.

What are some of the leading organizations engaged in advancing chemical recycling?

Leading companies working to scale chemical recycling have formed the Chemical Recycling Alliance (CRA). CRA members include innovative companies engaged in the business of developing and commercializing chemical recycling technologies, plastic resin manufacturers, converters and brands converters collaborating to develop chemical recycling solutions, and other companies providing consulting services to the chemical recycling industry. The CRA develops and advocates for public policy approaches that will more rapidly scale chemical recycling technology, educates the plastics value chain on the tremendous opportunities in chemical recycling, and educates key stakeholders and policymakers on the environmental and economic benefits of scaling and commercializing chemical recycling across the world.

How can I keep current on news, trends and happenings on chemical recycling?

Follow the Chemical Recycling Alliance on Twitter @ChemRecycling and join the conversation via the Chemical Recycling Alliance LinkedIn page.

Are there other sources of good information on chemical recycling?

Yes. Growing chemical recycling to ensure more plastics are recycled and recovered is a high priority of America’s Plastics Makers and the Chemical Recycling Alliance. Therefore, we work closely with Closed Loop Partners, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, The Recycling Partnership, and the Association of Plastic Recyclers. We are also proud to have a cross-Atlantic alliance with Chemical Recycling Europe. All these organizations share our goal of reusing and repurposing post-use plastics into new plastics, chemicals, fuels and other products.

» Learn more about the Chemical Recycling Alliance

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