The manufacturing of plastics can be considered a “sustainable” economic activity in Europe provided that they are “fully manufactured by mechanical recycling of plastic waste” or by chemical recycling processes if minimum emission standards are met, according to a leaked EU proposal seen by EURACTIV.
The new standards for sustainable plastic manufacturing are expected to be tabled in the coming days under the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy, which determines what type of investments make a substantial contribution to the EU’s fight against climate change.
Plastic manufacturers will be looking to win the EU’s coveted “sustainable” investment label in order to drive private investments into next generation plastics made from recovered waste and other chemical recycling processes.
The draft EU text, known as a “delegated act”, also defines standards for chemical recycling, a process by which plastics are dissolved and broken down into simple chemical substances.
To be considered sustainable, plastics that are “fully manufactured by chemical recycling of plastic waste” must have lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than “the equivalent primary plastic manufactured from fossil fuel feedstock,” the draft text says.
When “derived wholly or partially from renewable feedstock” such as agricultural waste, the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions must be “lower” than “the equivalent plastics in primary form manufactured from fossil fuel feedstock,” the draft says.
Promoting recycling is a key part of the European Commission’s goal to achieve a circular economy. Recycled plastics are currently more expensive than fossil-fuel based equivalents and the European Commission is looking at ways of reversing the trend.
Oil prices have fallen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, making fossil-fuel based virgin materials considerably cheaper than recycled plastics.
Beyond price, manufacturers also tend to prefer virgin materials for health and safety reasons, particularly those producing plastics for food and drink packaging where safety standards are highest.
Concerns over chemical recycling in the taxonomy
Jutta Paulus, a Green lawmaker in the European Parliament, says she supports chemical recycling as a way to reach higher plastic recycling targets. However, she says the taxonomy should establish a clearer hierarchy between the different ways of tackling waste.
“I would really like to have a differentiation in the taxonomy, saying first reduce, then reuse, then mechanical recycling and then chemical recycling,” she said, adding chemical recycling should not stop mechanical recycling or the push to use single component plastic.
Green campaigners say chemical recycling does not necessarily generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions than using virgin material. It only looks that way when greenhouse gas emissions from avoiding incineration are discounted from lifecycle emissions, according to Janek Vahk from Zero Waste Europe, an NGO.
“It will allow processes which are extremely energy intensive and would recover very little plastic in the process,” Vahk said.
Worse, he says the EU taxonomy could end up promoting chemical recycling over less energy-intensive processes like mechanical recycling, warning this could lead to greenwashing, which the taxonomy was designed to avoid.
“When it comes to chemical recycling, more criteria would be needed to ensure that it does not undermine mechanical recycling in the future,” he said.
Paulus agreed, saying policymakers must ensure that emissions are properly monitored and verified. “Because of course the industry which wants to do chemical recycling will find ways to make it look greener than it is,” the Green MEP said.
Zero Waste Europe has also raised concerns regarding the labelling of chemical recycling as a manufacturing process rather than a waste management activity in the taxonomy, saying this classification has far less stringent criteria.
“When it comes to the waste part, it’s very good, but it’s bizarre that chemical recycling was put not under the waste sector, but under manufacturing,” said Vahk, who insists on proper tracking procedures.
EU Commission cautiously optimistic about chemical recycling
The European Commission aims to boost the EU market for recycled plastic and launched a circular plastics alliance in 2018 with an initial pledge of reaching 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics used in products by 2025.
The Commission has been cautiously optimistic about the benefits of chemical recycling. Although it is seen as a promising technology, “more information” is needed on “the overall environmental performance of these technologies, in particular regarding energy consumption,” said Kęstutis Sadauskas, director at the European Commission’s environment directorate in a July interview.
Plastic production has increased around 4% every year since 2000 and the oil industry sees it as its biggest growth driver in the future, according to research published in September,
And because demand for plastics will be impossible to eradicate entirely, it is crucial to find a way of making their production more circular, Paulus said.
“We’re using 10% of the oil production worldwide to produce not only plastics, but chemical components. In order to become climate neutral, we have to in some way get rid of using virgin fossil fuels,” Paulus said.
The European chemical industry says chemical recycling has a vital role to play in developing a circular economy but declined EURACTIV’s invitation to comment on the leaked EU taxonomy rules. The European Recycling Industries’ Confederation also would not comment on the draft while Plastics Recyclers Europe, another trade group, did not respond to a request for comment.
Chemical recycling is still a very new technology compared to mechanical recycling and Paulus warned there may be difficulties down the line when trying to scale up the process.
“We should not put all our eggs in one basket. We should not rely on chemical recycling being able to take care of all the waste we are creating at the moment,” she said.