Chemical Recycling Technology Bringing Value to Plastic Waste

Plastic bottle crushed or Small pieces of cut colorful plastic bottles with Blurred green background. Recycle icon, sustainable icon and Bottle icon. Chemical concept
In a world where fossil fuels are increasingly being avoided, and the mounting problem of plastic waste management intensifies, a new approach to plastic waste has attracted much attention. Advanced recycling technologies such as chemical recycling and the dissolution of plastic waste aim to increase the circularity of the plastics economy.
Research by IDTechEx in their latest report, "Chemical Recycling and Dissolution of Plastics 2024-2034: Technologies, Players, Markets, Forecasts", highlights key developments within the chemical recycling industry and predicts strong market growth with a CAGR of 35.1%. Mechanical recycling techniques will continue to be the dominant technology; however, the utility of mechanically recycled plastics is limited due to the degraded mechanical properties of the recycled plastic. This results in the downcycling of recycled plastic. This limitation necessitates alternative recycling methods such as chemical recycling and dissolution.
How chemical recycling can move beyond the limitations of mechanical methods
Chemical recycling is the process where plastic waste is transformed either into monomers or new raw materials. This transformation occurs through various chemical reactions such as cracking, gasification, or depolymerization, explicitly excluding processes like energy recovery and incineration. These technologies allow previously unrecyclable plastic waste, such as multilayer packaging, to be recycled by turning this previously useless material into key feedstocks for the plastics production supply chain.
For this reason, interest in chemical recycling is growing, with increasing investment in the sector and new plants being planned or existing plants expanded. Major petrochemical, chemical, and consumer goods companies such as Dow, ExxonMobil, BASF, and Shell, among others, are heavily involved. In many cases, these larger stakeholders have formed partnerships with smaller emerging companies entering the chemical recycling industry. These collaborations are helping these companies secure funding, enter strategic partnerships, and develop feedstock agreements, which are essential for advancing their technologies.
Despite the enthusiasm, chemical recycling faces scrutiny. Critics question both its environmental benefits and economic feasibility. While companies often present their solutions as definitive answers to plastic waste, the reality presents a more nuanced picture where each technological solution has its benefits and drawbacks. Moreover, notable failures such as those by Agilyx, Rewnewlogy, and Brightmark in this space serve as cautionary tales.
Key technologies for chemical recycling
Depolymerization, a prominent method among these, requires relatively homogeneous feedstock and breaks down materials into monomers using thermal, chemical, or biological means.
Pyrolysis and gasification are processes that convert mixed plastic waste into pyrolysis oil and syngas, respectively, using thermochemical methods. Pyrolysis, particularly, has garnered attention from chemical companies attempting to integrate sustainability into their operations as pyrolysis oil can be easily integrated with conventional crude oil hydrocarbon feedstock to produce plastics. Both pyrolysis and gasification face their own set of challenges, particularly in terms of the technical requirements of pre- and post-processing stages, although advancements are being made. Notably, gasification is primarily a waste-to-energy process and, as such, is not considered recycling by all.
Another key advanced recycling area is secondary recycling via dissolution. This process involves dissolving the polymer and then re-precipitating it to recover the pure polymer.
The market is expected to grow significantly by 2034 in terms of input capacity. The image shows the projected input capacity growth of chemical recycling and dissolution plants from 2024 to 2034. Source: IDTechEx
The "Chemical Recycling and Dissolution of Plastics 2024-2034: Technologies, Players, Markets, Forecasts" report from IDTechEx anticipates significant growth in the chemical recycling sector, with new facilities becoming operational and new technologies continuing to develop. By 2034, IDTechEx projects that pyrolysis and depolymerization plants will process over 17 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. While this is a large increase from current figures, this figure represents a small proportion of all plastic waste (annually, over 400 million tonnes are produced), showing room for growth is far from limited by the amount of plastic waste. However, realizing this potential will require substantial investment and ongoing commitment across the value chain.
The expansion of chemical recycling capabilities, particularly in pyrolysis and depolymerization, has been significant, with the input capacity of chemical recycling plants increasing by over 60% since early 2021. Nonetheless, the economic and environmental impacts remain contentious topics, with critics pointing to flawed assumptions in life cycle assessments and challenging the economic viability of these processes.
The application of recycled materials is not limited to packaging for fast-moving consumer goods; it extends to textiles, automotive parts, electronic equipment, and other sectors. Other key innovations include alternative processes like microwave and enzymatic depolymerization, hydrothermal processes, and novel polymer developments such as dynamic cross-linked polymers.
Chemical recycling market forecast
For further information on this market, including discussion on players, an analysis of market trends, and a 10-year market forecast, see the IDTechEx market report, "Chemical Recycling and Dissolution of Plastics 2024-2034: Technologies, Players, Markets, Forecasts". The report also contains a comprehensive summary of technology providers, a complete list of operational plants and projects, and an analysis of the latest R&D and technology trends with a commercial impact.
To find out more about this report from IDTechEx, including downloadable sample pages, please visit
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Upcoming free-to-attend Webinar
Chemical Recycling: Navigating the Landscape of Innovative Technologies and Scaling Challenges
James Kennedy, Technology Analyst at IDTechEx and author of this article, will be presenting a free-to-attend webinar on the topic on Thursday 13 June 2024 - Chemical Recycling: Navigating the Landscape of Innovative Technologies and Scaling Challenges.
In this webinar, IDTechEx will cover the challenges being faced by the chemical recycling of plastics industry, which need to be considered as companies scale and these technologies are adopted on a wider scale.
The webinar will include:
  • An overview of chemical recycling of plastic technologies
  • Challenges to adoption and scaling
  • The challenges faced by enzymatic depolymerization
  • Chain of custody approaches
  • IDTechEx's outlook and conclusions
Please click here to check timings and register for your specific time zone.
If you are unable to make the date, please register anyway to receive the links to the on-demand recording (available for a limited time) and webinar slides as soon as they are available.
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