Treasury decision on chemical recycling condemned in open letter

MPs and peers from four major parties have called on the Treasury to reconsider its decision to classify chemical process products as “recycled content” in the tax on plastic packaging.

Written by A Plastic Planet, the open letter criticizes the Treasury’s decision to treat the products of pyrolysis and gasification (two key chemical recycling processes) as recycled, pointing out that the processes are unsustainable, energy-intensive and carbon-heavy. .

Recent parliamentary responses have revealed that Treasury ministers will classify carbon-intensive chemical processes as recycling under the tax, but A Plastic Planet’s open letter illustrates calls from all parties to bridge “the tax loophole”.

The open letter warns that big industry players are using chemical recycling as a “quick win” to meet plastic recycling targets and comply with the tax, with the Treasury classification facilitating this. However, in a separate parliamentary response, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) categorized pyrolysis and gasification processes as ‘incineration’.

The letter goes on to say that if plastic producers claim to meet the recycled content threshold for plastic packaging using such a carbon-intensive process as chemical recycling, the tax will not have the intended impact. These processes, notes A Plastic Planet, release “about 50% of the carbon in plastics as greenhouse gases, and produce less than 10% of [the material’s] original value in the new content”.

Matthew Offord, Conservative MP for Hendon, said: “The plastic packaging tax is a welcome development, which will see the UK leading the world on this issue. Nevertheless, it is essential to ensure that there are no loopholes or loopholes for plastic manufacturers. I urge the Treasury to carry out a detailed assessment of the impact of chemical recycling and to recognize it as a form of incineration, in line with international standards.

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton, Pavilion added: “This is a pivotal moment for the Treasury to defend the integrity of its own plastics tax. If major plastic producers are allowed to use chemical recycling to avoid paying taxes on plastic items, then the whole system fails. The Treasury has made grandiose claims about this plastics tax – hailing it as the world leader in the fight against plastic pollution.

“If Sunak really wants this to be the case, he needs to stop pandering to big plastic producers and recognize the harmful environmental impacts of chemical recycling. That starts with recognizing it as incineration – not recycling.”

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, also commented, “Plastic producers and the retailers they rely on need to stop focusing on protecting the industry’s profit margin at the expense of saving the planet. The Treasury’s decision to include these products in the definition of recycled is both illogical and extremely damaging. Environmental campaigners have fought long and hard for the UK to introduce a tax on plastic packaging: it is heartbreaking to see the Treasury introduce it on the wrong basis from the start.

What is chemical recycling?

In the context of plastics, chemical recycling – also known as advanced or molecular recycling – refers to the chemical, thermochemical and combustion processes by which a proportion of processed plastic waste is transformed into chemical building blocks. This material can then be recycled into other plastics, including plastic that can be used for food grade applications.

Proponents of chemical recycling technologies point to their potential to solve the twin problems of fossil fuel addiction and global plastic pollution, highlighting their ability to “fill the gap” in current recycling by providing an alternative waste management option for currently unrecycled items, and recycle material back to virgin quality.

However, chemical recycling has drawn criticism over a “lack of transparency” in the available evidence of environmental performance. These contrasting positions have sparked a debate about the environmental viability of chemical recycling.

“Essential” Technology

The trade association PlasticsEurope is among those advocating for the implementation of chemical recycling technologies. In a statement last year, the association said scaling up the technology was “essential” to meeting EU targets for recycled content for plastic packaging, saying members were already “working towards” the goal by investing in “new technology solutions”.

Similarly, Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) also supported the prospects for these technologies. In a report, ZWE highlighted the potential of technologies such as depolymerization to contribute to the global circularity of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but noted that these techniques need to “come to full maturity” with their “full impact” assessed.

“Major Concerns”

In a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), it was found that the majority of chemical facilities surveyed do not recycle any plastics, but instead create fuels and release hazardous pollutants into communities and the environment. The US analysis advocates regulation of chemical recycling.

Reviewing eight facilities in the United States, the study found that the majority of facilities do not recycle any plastics while simultaneously generating a large amount of hazardous waste and releasing hazardous pollutants. The study also noted that facilities are often located near or in communities with disproportionately low income, people of color, or both, leading to “significant environmental justice concerns.”

The NRDC report found that Agilyx, an Oregon-based processing plant called the “gold standard in chemical recycling,” actually sent a significant amount of material to incineration and generated a large amount of waste. dangerous.

This follows a report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), in which the NGO set out its position on the implementation of chemical recycling technologies. The report insists that chemical recycling techniques should be applied in accordance with circular economy principles, noting that they are surrounded by “significant concerns”.

The report recommended that, if applied, these technologies would be “complementary” to existing waste management systems and not compete with mechanical recycling for raw materials. Plastic waste streams should also be paired with the “most environmentally efficient technology available”, which the NGO said would “ensure that the whole system works with the smallest possible environmental footprint”.

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