Plastic waste is an increasing environmental concern, leading manufacturers to take bold action on creating a circular economy based on chemical recycling. Despite these lofty goals, environmentalists are concerned that the efforts do not address the real issue of plastic overuse. A new article in Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, explains how industry is trying to tackle the problem of plastics.
The Society of Conservation Biology estimates that up to 23 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean each year, causing consumers and regulators alike to push for change in how plastics are manufactured and disposed, writes Senior Editor Alex Tullo. Mechanical recycling is limited in the number of times a plastic can be re-used and for what types of packaging, so manufacturers are eyeing chemical recycling as a solution. Chemical processes like depolymerization and pyrolysis break down plastics into their building blocks, allowing them to be made into new polymers or used for other applications such as diesel fuel. Experts also say that some chemically recycled plastics will be suitable for use in medical and food applications, which have strict safety requirements.
While the promise of chemical recycling is enticing, environmental groups are critical of the practice, saying that reducing the amount of plastic consumption is the only real solution to the crisis. Chemical recycling will help companies meet their environmental pledges, they say, but may in turn increase the amount of disposable packaging produced and energy consumed. In addition, critics have pointed out that these ambitious recycling projects might not be viable, with only a small number making it past the pilot stage. Despite these concerns, some early studies indicate that chemical recycling will result in environmental benefits, providing companies with a major opportunity to reduce plastic waste in the coming decade.