After decades enjoying the usefulness of plastic, humanity has to deal with the consequences: tons of pollution. Until now, the proposal to reduce the accumulation of plastic waste was mechanical recycling; But it is clear that it had little adoption for dumping poor quality products. Instead, an alternative known as chemical recycling could be the future of sustainability at an industrial level. Future of Chemical Recycling of Plastic
Europe has been well aware of this for a long time. The first chemical recycling plant was established in Germany and processes about 40,000 tons of plastic waste. Even smaller startups have joined this fight; as an example . So does this mean that this is the right way to fight pollution? Let’s first see what it is about.
From mechanical recycling to chemical recycling
First of all, it is good to differentiate mechanical recycling from chemical recycling. The first is what many think when they talk about the reuse of plastic waste. It is basically separating the different waste, cutting it into small pieces, melting it and giving it a new use. And although it is very useful for different sectors, there is a reality to face: the resulting material is of low quality .
Humans are lovers of durability, and this is one of the reasons that mechanical recycling has not been so popular. Most of the materials resulting from plastic waste end up as carpet fibers or park benches. However, the high levels of pollution on our planet need immediate solutions , and chemical recycling is a possible option.
What is chemical recycling?
As its name indicates, chemical recycling consists of applying deep chemical transformations that result in a high-quality material; If it cannot be better than the original, it must be at least as valuable as the original. In this way, it would also obtain value at the economic level, which could stop the massive production of more plastic waste.
Chemical recycling consists of breaking down the molecules of the polymers to obtain the original components, that is, the monomers. In a simpler way, it is a process that allows us to go back to the beginning of the production of plastics ; and more importantly, it makes it possible to produce good quality materials with high commercial value from existing plastic waste.
Benefits for the environment and the economy
In 2019, plastics manufacturers in Europe, the United States and Canada took on an unprecedented challenge: reduce plastic waste in their territories. To achieve this before 2040, they will have to reuse, recycle or recover all the packaging produced and discarded; that is the real challenge. With mechanical recycling this would be unthinkable given the futility of the results, but chemical recycling could make it possible.
Mechanical recycling was neither attractive nor conducive to stimulating the long-awaited circular economy. However, chemical recycling breaks this curse and even promises to create jobs and economic growth . According to a report by the American Chemistry Council, its impact will be so great as to generate 40,000 jobs in the United States alone. Although Spain is not a market leader, similar consequences are expected as this technique is adopted.
But, without a doubt, its main advantage for the environment would be the reduction of plastic waste in terrestrial and aquatic spaces. Therefore, its consequences, such as the suffocation of numerous species and their microplastic entry into our body through water; not to mention improving the appearance of natural spaces. However, in the end the plastic will continue there promising to generate new problems in the future.
In general, chemical recycling is considered to be a complement to the mechanical one, which, as we indicated at the beginning, has many limitations. However, it is not considered a definitive solution to the problem of the accumulation of plastic waste in our world; it’s just a slightly more sustainable way to keep producing plastic. Still, industry experts agree that it will see widespread adoption in the future, hopefully not too distant.