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Beyond Plastics Pillories ‘False Promises’ of Chemical Recycling

The study from the anti-plastics organization as well as a progress report on sustainable plastic packaging from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are released ahead of the international plastic treaty meeting.

Norbert Sparrow

November 1, 2023

3 Min Read
loops7/iStock via Getty Images

The forthcoming United Nations–led international plastic treaty talks in Kenya are precipitating a flurry of studies and press releases about plastic pollution. It's no coincidence.

Beyond Plastics released a report this week that aims to debunk chemical recycling’s “false promises to manage plastic waste,” which has gotten a lot of press in the last couple of days. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which champions the circular economy, also weighed in this week with a paper reflecting on the real progress that has been made in the past five years but arguing that “the world remains significantly off track” in tackling plastic waste and meeting “key 2025 targets.” Both organizations seek to influence talks at the third session (INC-3) of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in Nairobi on Nov. 13 to 19, 2023.

"Chemical recycling . . . has failed for decades"

Beyond Plastics, in association with the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), released this week a paper titled, “Chemical Recycling: A Dangerous Deception.” In it, the activist organizations argue that chemical recycling, aka advanced recycling, has failed for decades and that only 11 chemical recycling facilities currently exist in the United States, processing a “tiny fraction of the nation’s plastic waste,” mostly into fuels. “Chemical recycling isn’t just oil; it’s snake oil,” commented Heather McTeer Toney, executive director of Beyond Petrochemicals. “It doesn’t work and in fact hurts communities already dealing with pollution from the facilities manufacturing plastic and petrochemical products.”

The report’s findings are said to reveal that chemical recycling produces large quantities of hazardous waste, releases toxic air pollution, threatens environmental justice (because many US facilities reportedly are located in low-income areas and communities of color), and contributes to climate change.

While it’s true that chemical recycling is not a new technology, it has certainly been refined in recent years, and the processes by which plastic waste is de-polymerized for use in new products have multiplied. Examples abound in coverage of advanced recycling in PlasticsToday. The economics were far from compelling in the past — when the accumulation of plastic waste had not yet been escalated to a crisis — but the cost is coming down as the technology evolves and scales up, and there is greater consensus today that paying a few pennies more for packaging is worth the environmental benefit.

Circular economy goals not being met

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s progress report is a more holistic document than Beyond Plastics’ manifesto, but it shares the goal of influencing discussions at the international plastics treaty meeting later this month. 

The report acknowledges that progress has been made by the brands and retail outlets that signed on to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment launched in 2018 by the foundation and UN Environment Program. The more than 1,000 signatories representing more than 20% of the world’s plastic packaging industry, according to the foundation, doubled their use of recycled content between 2018 and 2021. However, their total packaging use increased by 4.3% from 2020 to 2021. “This increase has outpaced recycled-content progress, leading to a 2.5% increase in virgin plastic use compared with 2020, which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says is back to 2018 levels,” notes a press release distributed yesterday.

Consequently, the release states that “governments must take immediate action to accelerate progress and have the opportunity to promote high ambitions in upcoming negotiations for a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, the UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, also known as the Global Plastics Treaty.”

We will undoubtedly hear more chatter about plastics in the days leading up to INC-3. This might be a propitious time for the plastics industry, which will be represented at the meeting as far as I know, to get a few words in, as well. When it does, we will report on it.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree. Reach him at [email protected].

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