When talking about recycling, we often hear the term mechanical recycling. More recently, chemical recycling has entered the industry, and occasionally we hear the terminology advanced recycling.

Mechanical recycling is the more commonly known methodology as this has been in operation for quite some time. This technology implies the recycling practice to which we all refer, plastic waste recycled to other plastic products.

Advanced, or chemical recycling is a relatively new technology and is complementary to mechanical recycling in that it can recycle a wider range of plastics often not accepted by the mechanical technology. There are several ongoing projects in the plastics and recycling industries to make advanced recycling more widespread.

What is the relation of chemical recycling to advanced recycling?

Often these two are mistaken as meaning the same thing, or being alternative names for one another, however, chemical recycling is actually one methodology which falls under the advanced recycling banner.

What is advanced recycling?

Advanced recycling, according to Yariv Eldar, Vice-President Business Development, Clariter, is defined as processes, which are used to turn plastic polymers back into individual monomers—the chemical building blocks that make up plastic. Once this happens, it allows for materials to be reused in a variety of ways rather than being limited to new plastics, as is the case in mechanical recycling. This transformation can occur through a variety of processes, namely pyrolysis, oxidative degradation, and gasification, all of which avoid combustion, or burning, of plastics.

What is Chemical Recycling?

European regulations do not define chemical recycling, Daria Frączak, Research & Development Manager, Clariter, explains. There is a Waste Framework Directive that states what recycling is generally – any operation which takes waste and makes products, materials, and substances from it, but what is important here: by this definition, plastic to fuels is not recycling, but rather energy recovery, which falls to the same level as incineration – just above landfilling. This approach is confirmed by the chemical recycling definition in ISO 15270 standard, which more precisely limits chemical recycling to cracking, gasification, and depolymerization. Thereby, excluding dissolution processes. On the other hand, the American Chemistry Council includes plastic to fuel processes into its advanced recycling definition. So, in some definitions fuel production from waste is considered as recycling, in others not. In some of them – dissolution is not excluded; in others it is. This can be confusing.

What are the benefits of chemical recycling technologies?

Chemical recycling helps us overcome the limitations of traditional mechanical recycling and it helps industry to push the boundaries of how and where recycled plastics can be used.

Some of the benefits include:

  • Enabling the production of high-value end and industrial products that can be used as fossil-based alternatives.
  • Decreasing the dependency on crude oil.
  • Lowering the carbon footprint of products.
  • Reduces plastic waste and helps decrease landfilling and incineration.
  • Accelerates a circular economy and provides new means to increase recycling rates by utilising a wider range of waste plastics.
  • Creates new jobs and therefore stimulates the global economy.
  • All this while enjoying a higher profit – companies who decide to switch to an alternative, green way of recycling enjoy higher profit levels. This is reached for reasons such as long-term fixed costs on raw materials rather than relying on volatile oil prices, a company’s waste may now become their raw materials, and these companies are able to charge premium prices for the sustainability of their products.

So regardless of whether people refer to it as chemical or advanced recycling, this new technology is the complimentary solution that the recycling industry needs, and in time will become a household name.

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