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DUH Warns Against High-Risk and Immature Technologies of Chemical Recycling

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The Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) has warned against the high-risk and immature technologies of pyrolysis and gasification, which are increasingly being touted as alternatives to established environmentally-friendly recycling methods. The warning comes in response to two new studies commissioned by the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC) on the chemical recycling of plastics. According to the DUH, these studies contain dubious assumptions and significant data gaps, and fail to provide evidence of the environmental benefits of pyrolysis and gasification over established recycling processes.

The DUH argues that chemical recycling of plastics consumes an excessive amount of energy, leads to significant material losses, and generates toxic byproducts. The organization is calling for more waste reduction, reusable products, recyclable materials, and established recycling processes. The DUH believes that investments in these high-risk and immature technologies could endanger environmentally sound circular economy practices.

The JRC studies have drawn criticism for their false priorities, questionable assumptions, and significant data gaps. According to Barbara Metz, the DUH's Federal Managing Director, the JRC studies should not be used as a basis for promoting the use of chemical recycling technologies, political measures, or economic incentives. Metz argues that the data is incomplete, the technical processes are unexplored, and the assumptions made about innovation are questionable.

Chemical recycling techniques require enormous amounts of energy as plastics are broken down into their individual components under high temperatures and then reassembled at a high energy cost. The DUH argues that up to 50% of the materials are lost during pyrolysis and gasification, and that toxic chemicals may be generated, requiring costly treatment and disposal. In contrast, established recycling processes retain the integrity of the original plastic, resulting in lower energy use and greater environmental benefits.

The DUH believes that efforts should focus on established environmentally-friendly measures, such as improving the recyclability of products, developing sorting technologies, and supporting established recycling processes. They argue that these measures have great potential and that the chemical recycling of plastics should not be equated with established recycling processes or count towards established recycling quotas. Doing so would disadvantage established recycling processes and be detrimental to the environment.

For more information, see the DUH's joint statement with Zero Waste Europe, Ecos, and the Rethink Plastic Alliance on the JRC studies on chemical recycling (in English) and background information on chemical recycling on their website.


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