Chemical recycling – all its cracked up to be?

Over 50% of plastic produced each year is discarded after a single-use, contributing to the never ending stream of plastic waste both in the UK and internationally. While plastic remains the best material for the job in a lot of cases, we need to make smart choices with how this is reused, recycled or biodegraded. The GML is an active participator in the RE3 project aiming to address some of these issues in the UK. Currently most of this waste stream is recycled mechanically, which requires separation and is not compatible with all material input – could chemical recycling be the answer we’ve all been looking for?

A collaborative effort amongst US universities recently reported the upcycling of single-use polyethylene into high quality petroleum products in the latest effort to add value to the 40bn tonnes of plastic waste projected to be present on Earth by 2050. This breakthrough has been covered a lot in the news and the BBC asked Mike for his thoughts. Its important to realise the forcing conditions that are still required in this process, with temperatures of 300 °C for over 30 hours, while platinum is by no means a cheap metal to employ. However, chemical recycling, if it can be optimised, could become a key part of the recycling infrastructure in the UK. The process may avoid the need for sorting our waste streams, saving money and time – while converting this mix to a useful feedstock with real value.

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