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Developing A Circular Plastic Economy

Our modern lifestyles thrive on the lightweight and durable protection that plastic packaging offers. Unfortunately, only a very small amount of plastic is recycled and much more is needed to address the plastic pollution problem. Efforts to reduce plastic consumption and to boost re-use of plastic, plastic waste collection, sorting, and recycling capabilities need to increase. Plastic Energy helps address the problem of plastic pollution and plays a key role in recycling plastic waste and developing a circular plastic economy.

Plastic Energy is an award-winning company at the forefront of the circular economy for plastics and the chemical recycling industry. We are unique in this industry with our operational experience and commercial plants in Almeria and Seville in Spain. Plastic Energy is currently expanding its technology with several plants under construction globally in a bid to increase recycling and provide high quality recycled content to replace virgin plastic production.


How much post-consumer plastic waste is collected for recycling in Europe?

Recent data shows that as of 2020, in the EU, UK, Norway and Switzerland, only 34.6% of post-consumer plastic waste was collected for recycling (some of which has been exported for recycling outside of Europe) while as much as 42% was sent to energy recovery facilities (a form of incineration where energy is recovered) and 23.4% was sent to landfills. In other regions of the world, plastic waste management fares much more poorly due to a lack of waste management infrastructure or a lack of robust collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure.

The urgency to reduce fossil resources and to transition to a circular economy where all resources are kept in circulation means that these trends need to be urgently reversed through increased recycling and re-use.

What is chemical recycling?

Chemical recycling (also referred to as advanced recycling, feedstock recycling, non-mechanical recycling) describes a set of different technologies each with their own benefits, applicability and trade-offs. 

Chemical recycling can help increase overall recycling rates and close the loop on plastic waste recycling, providing high quality recycled content for food-grade applications. 

Definitions on chemical recycling can vary and, as a leader in the field, Plastic Energy encourages clarity through regulation. It is important to note that under current EU legislation, plastic waste processed through chemical recycling technologies and used as fuel is not considered recycling.   

We advocate for plastic-to-plastic chemical recycling to be fully recognised and accounted for as part of global recycled content quotas and packaging taxes. 

Mechanical recycling offers limited options for the inclusion of recycled content into food packaging due to technical barriers and quality losses. Most mechanical recycling output is currently being ‘downcycled’ meaning it is used in a different type of product than the one it originates from. The main goal of the circular economy agenda is to close the product loop and keep resources in circulation for as long as possible. For this to be achieved, both mechanical and chemical recycling need to be ramped up on a level playing field.  

Currently, the market for recycled content suffers from a large gap in demand and supply, especially for food-grade packaging. Working alongside existing mechanical recycling, chemical recycling can help fill this gap.  

What technology does Plastic Energy use?

Plastic Energy uses its patented TAC™ process to recycle mixed end-of-life plastic waste into a recycled feedstock, called TACOIL™, that is used for plastics manufacturing. During this process, plastics are heated in the absence of oxygen to produce hydrocarbon vapours, which are condensed to make TACOIL™. This TACOIL™ is then used by our petrochemical partners as a replacement for fossil feedstock in the production of new plastics.

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What is the environmental impact of this technology?

While recycling helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reusing the material and contributing to the circular economy, there are environmental impacts arising from the recycling process itself. 

Plastic Energy is continuously improving its technology to lower overall impacts and minimise the footprint of its recycling operations. We have purchased renewable energy to cover our electricity needs for the two plants in Seville and Almeria. Other process efficiencies are achieved through scale, for example, a higher quantity of plastic waste to be processed in the plants currently under construction will lead to lower overall impacts. In time, as the electricity grid will decarbonise with the integration of more renewable energy, the impacts from both recycling and the production of plastics with recycled feedstocks will be further minimised.

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Plastic Energy published an independent life cycle assessment that quantifies the impacts of our technology as well as the reductions achieved through using recycled feedstock instead of virgin plastics. This assessment concluded that: 

  • Plastic Energy’s process has a considerably lower climate change impact than incineration with energy recovery (which is currently the most prevalent processing route for mixed plastic waste).  

To treat 1kg of mixed plastic waste, chemical recycling emits 0.55 kg CO2-eq, or 65% less than incineration with energy recovery. 

  • Plastic manufactured with Plastic Energy’s recycling output has a lower climate change impact than virgin plastic production.

To produce 1 kg of LDPE, chemical recycling emits 0.86 kg CO2-eq, or 55% less emissions than producing 1kg of plastic from fossil origin. Compared to virgin (fossil) LDPE production, chemically recycled LDPE has lower climate change and resources depletion scores.

Plastic Energy’s process is certified through ISCC PLUS, which verifies by a third-party that our process recycles plastic waste into a valuable product, contributing to reduced virgin feedstock consumption. We have also become the first end-of-life plastics chemical recycler to achieve RSB certification, which is one of the world’s most robust sustainability standards for the circular and bio-based economy.

What is the level of maturity of your technology?

Plastic Energy operates two commercial scale recycling plants in Almeria and Seville, Spain since 2016 and 2017 respectively. The technology has been optimised for more than 10 years. Currently, the company is expanding its operations globally with several plants under construction in Europe, and other projects in the development stage in the US and Asia.  

We have an ever-growing portfolio of industry partnerships, having demonstrated the benefits of chemical recycling through commercialised products that contain recycled content from our TACOIL™. Some of these collaborations with value-chain partners have produced recycled content for products such as Heinz Beanz snap pots, Bradburys cheese for Tesco supermarkets and Magnum ice cream tubs.

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How is the chemical recycling industry regulated?

“How is the chemical recycling industry regulated?” There is already regulation in place covering chemical recycling. For example, the industry is regulated through different legislative initiatives including the Industrial Emissions Directive, the Waste Framework Directive, REACH, Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, and many more.

Plastic Energy is supportive of further regulation to clarify the role of chemical recycling as part of policies to increase recycling rates and the use of recycled content. We are encouraging decision-makers to adopt comprehensive and robust regulations that govern the use of chemical recycling while recognising the benefits it provides to complement traditional waste management technologies.

Is chemical recycling perpetuating the current issues associated with plastic pollution?

Plastic Energy is focused solely on plastic-to-plastic recycling, also referred to as ‘closed-loop recycling’. Through this approach, the output from our recycling process is used to create new plastic products thus displacing the use of fossil fuel feedstock in the production of plastics. This is directly reducing the climate impact of plastic production and, at the same time, keeping resources in circulation. In a circular economy, all resources and products need to be re-used and recycled.

What is the role of chemical recycling as part of plastic waste management policies?

Plastic Energy is strongly supportive of a comprehensive policy framework to solve the issue of plastic waste pollution. We believe that chemical recycling plays an important role as part of this alongside mechanical recycling, however, a mix of both upstream (related to plastics production) and downstream measures (related to end-of-life management) need to be considered.  

Upstream policies include more sustainable production and manufacturing processes including design for recyclability, innovation and waste prevention. 

Downstream policies include better collection, sorting and recycling of plastic waste through a combination of both mechanical and chemical technologies. Unsustainable practices such as plastic waste exports (for example outside of Europe), incineration (with or without energy recovery) and landfill need to be discouraged through regulation. 

Other important policies are reduction, reuse, the establishment of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, mandatory recycled content targets and taxes on virgin plastics. 

There is no silver bullet to solve the plastic waste crisis. Plastic Energy supports a combination of complementary policy instruments and solutions to provide strong incentives and create the conditions needed for the establishment of a secondary materials market and a truly circular plastics economy. Collaborative action between stakeholders across the entire value chain is also a very important part of tackling the plastic waste crisis.

What is mass-balance and why is it needed?

Currently, certification schemes are providing a strong framework that ensures the traceability and third-party verification for chemically recycled plastics along the supply chain. However, as volumes of recycled plastics increase and chemical recycling is scaling up, the next step is to have this framework adopted into legislation. This will enable a higher uptake in the market and provide a strong investment signal that chemical recycling is a key enabler for plastics circularity.

Mass-balance is a chain of custody model that has been used for decades to distinguish between certified renewable, fair-trade or circular feedstocks or products and non-certified ones so that the volumes can be traced and certified accurately as they move along complex manufacturing supply chains. Mass-balance has been successfully used, for example, in determining the quantities of renewable energy being added to electricity grids and has been instrumental in demonstrating how electricity is being increasingly decarbonised.

Plastic Energy, through its policy and advocacy efforts as part of Chemical Recycling Europe, has been advocating together with 30 associations in the value chain for the need for policymakers to adopt a mass-balance chain of custody model into legislation this year. We believe that policymakers can and should enable the rapid scale-up of chemical recycling as part of the transition to a circular economy and mass-balance is a key enabling condition for this.

Shouldn’t plastics be replaced with other materials?

All materials we use have an environmental impact, however, they also have an important role to play in protecting and extending the life of the products we use. Recycling saves virgin resources and keeps materials in circulation. Often times, the environmental impact of packaging is much lower than the impact of the product itself, and its environmental cost needs to be balanced against the cost of spoiled goods which also consume resources during their manufacturing process (for example, food waste). These considerations need to be balanced carefully while also taking into account the most environmentally beneficial end-of-life management option.

Plastics are used because they are inexpensive, durable, lightweight and can withstand different temperatures. Simply replacing plastics with other materials does not automatically equate with lower environmental impacts. However, no matter how important the benefits of using plastics are – reduction, reuse, waste prevention and recycling remain important tools to tackle the plastic waste crisis.