Chemical Recycling of Polymeric Materials from Waste in the Circular Economy

REACH requirements need to be considered in chemical recycling


Chemical recycling of plastic waste currently covers different technologies with varying potential for contributing to a circular economy, a new report finds. Following REACH registration requirements for recycled materials and finding ways to eliminate substances of concern from plastic waste streams are key to achieving non-toxic recycling.

Helsinki, 11 November 2021 – The report commissioned by ECHA investigates the current knowledge on chemical recycling of polymeric materials such as plastics and rubber from waste. It introduces conclusions and recommendations that should be considered to further develop chemical recycling and reduce plastic pollution – particularly as the global production of plastics is expected to quadruple by 2050.

The conclusions and the potential solutions can be summarised as follows:

  • Regulatory issues in chemical recycling are currently not discussed in scientific papers. The opportunities and challenges posed by REACH and other chemicals, waste and product safety legislation are specific to each chemical recycling technology. As such, the report recommends that the regulatory issues are studied on a case-by-case basis, separately for each type of chemical recycling technology. It also summarises the feedback from operators on the challenges for each recycling technology.
  • There is little knowledge about the abilities of different chemical recycling processes to eliminate substances of concern. To make sound conclusions, investigations at chemical recycling plants should be carried out.
  • Chemical recycling technologies differ in their potential to ensure the circularity of plastics. The potential of specific technologies should be evaluated case-by-case to avoid false generalisations on the pros and cons of one technology for the whole field of chemical recycling.
  • Digital technologies contribute to improving the traceability of substances of concern in recycling. However, their implementation requires substantial efforts between and inside organisations.

Erwin Annys, Head of ECHA’s Support and Enforcement Unit says: “It is important to understand how the different chemical recycling techniques can reduce the presence of substances of concern in recycled materials to achieve toxic-free cycles under the circular economy. We also want to understand to what extent this will result in new REACH registrations. Finally the report gives an overview on the state of art of the different chemical recycling processes and the advantages and disadvantages of these techniques.”

What is chemical recycling?

In chemical recycling, plastic polymers are chemically broken down to supply new products such as crude oil, naphtha or fuels, which can be used in new plastic production. Chemical recycling can complement mechanical recycling, i.e. mechanical crushing of plastic into granulate, as it can treat mixed and contaminated plastic waste that cannot otherwise be recycled.