A clutch of the world's largest consumer goods companies, including Mars, Nestle, Danone and Unilever, have united behind a set of principles for safe and environmentally responsible chemical recycling of plastic waste, arguing that such methods have a role to play in combatting the global plastics pollution crisis.
A position paper published by the 16 firms which make up the Consumer Goods Forum Plastic Waste Coalition concludes that chemical recycling could increase packaging recycling rates and deliver progress towards recycling targets, in particular for plastics that can't be mechanically recycled, such as post-consumer flexible film.
But it notes that for chemical recycling to be credible, technologies must meet certain conditions around material traceability, process yields, environmental impact, and the extent to which they complement existing mechanical recycling approaches.
The Coalition brings together many of the corporate world's most prolific plastic consumers, including PepsiCo, GSK, Colgate-Palmolive and Proctor & Gamble (P&G), which are under growing pressure to reduce their consumption of the fossil fuel-derived material, and ensure the packaging they do use is recycled instead of incinerated, causes pollution or dumped in landfill. Just last month, 175 national governments agreed to draw up a legally binding global treaty to combat plastic waste and pollution by 2024.
Used in the right way as part of a holistic approach, chemical recycling can contribute to a world where no plastic ends up in nature.
Advocates of chemical recycling argue pyrolysis, gasification, and solvent-based extraction technologies could help to reduce demand for virgin, fossil-based plastic and provide alternative waste management systems where mechanical recycling is impossible.
However, there have been significant concerns that the technologies are energy- and emissions-intensive, pose risks to human health and worker safety and could hinder efforts manage plastic pollution, by dis-incentivizing reduction and reuse of polluting packaging.
But Ignacio Gavilan, sustainability director at the Consumer Goods Forum, stressed that chemical recycling had a role to play in a circular economy, provided that technologies were scaled and developed in an environmentally responsible manner.
"Our focus must be to reduce dependency on plastics and improve packaging design, curbing the use of problematic materials and excess packaging," he said. "But where plastic packaging cannot be eliminated, reused or recycled using other methods, chemical recycling has a role within the circular economy.
"Chemical recycling takes plastics that can't be mechanically recycled and transforms them into materials that can be used to make new plastics. Used in the right way as part of a holistic approach, chemical recycling can contribute to a world where no plastic ends up in nature."
The companies also published the results of an independent study which concludes that chemical recycling of plastic waste is less toxic for the climate than waste-to-energy incineration tapped by many retailers.
The study, commissioned by the Plastic Waste Commission but produced by environmental consultancy Sphera, found that the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of chemically recycled plastic that is recycled at end of its life was 43 percent lower than plastic film manufactured from virgin fossil fuels and disposed of through incineration.
There have been significant concerns that the technologies are energy- and emissions-intensive, pose risks to human health and worker safety and could hinder efforts manage plastic pollution.
Llorenç Milà i Canals, head of the life cycle initiative secretariat the United Nations Environmental Programme, said the findings represented a positive first step in the drive to understand more about the environmental impacts of chemical recycling.
"It is crucial to consider all potential environmental impacts across the life cycle of production and consumption systems when assessing technologies such as chemical recycling of plastics," he said. "A specific challenge with relatively new technologies is including the chemical composition of discharges, emissions and wastes from facilities, along with the need for additional pollution control equipment and management; these should form part of the assessment."
The Consumer Goods Forum Plastic Waste Coalition said it welcomed feedback and engagement on both its new position paper and its broader work.
"As we continue to reduce the use of virgin plastic, new technologies such as chemical recycling can help drive up recycling rates and increase the availability of food grade recycled materials," said Colin Kerr, packaging director at Unilever. "The principles and Life Cycle Assessment work from The Consumer Goods Forum is key to ensuring this can happen in a safe and environmentally sound way."