Plastic waste

UK ploughs millions into chemical recycling research despite greenwashing claims

Image credit: Pile of sorted plastic waste. Photograph: © Zlikovec |

The UK government has spent more than £18.5m over the last four years on research into chemical recycling, despite claims that the technologies are “too good to be true” and instead serve as a lifeline for oil and gas companies.

Figures obtained by E&T through freedom of information rules show that £18,534,000 was awarded to chemical recycling projects by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) between 2018-2022.

Chemical recycling is a broad term used to describe a range of technologies which the petrochemical sector claims can recycle plastic that is traditionally difficult to deal with mechanically by turning plastic waste back into its molecular building blocks.

By far the most prevalent type of chemical recycling, pyrolysis, is a process in which plastics are broken down into a range of basic hydrocarbons by heating in the absence of oxygen. The primary product is pyrolysis oil, which can be refined into fuels or further processed to create chemicals or plastic. Gasification uses high temperatures with low volumes of air or steam to degrade plastic.

However, critics claim the technologies have a negative environmental impact and that there should be more focus on reducing plastic consumption in the first place.

An investigation carried out by E&T last year, found that a number of firms attempting to commercialise chemical recycling had gone bust after receiving public funding.

One such UK firm, Recycling Technologies, went into administration last September having received over £1.25m in funding from the UK government and at least €7m from chemical giant Neste.

Janek Vähk, climate, energy, and air pollution programme coordinator at Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), said public funding "should prioritise technologies that are less carbon-intensive than making plastics from virgin feedstock". 

Last year, the not-for-profit group Chemsec found that “[chemical recycling] technologies are costly, energy-intensive and often require the addition of a great deal of virgin plastic to work – the very material that needs to be phased out”.

“There is still a lack of transparent information and data on the environmental impacts of chemical recycling and recovery technologies - related to GHG emissions as well as toxicity. Therefore, further life-cycle assessments with robust accounting and allocation methods must be performed prior to incentivising such technologies through funding and legislation,” said Vähk.

Commenting on the funding, national coordinator of the campaign group the United Kingdom Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), Shlomo Dowen, said: "Gasification and pyrolysis have been tried and tested, and they have been found wanting. The move to a green circular economy requires us to be producing less plastic and less stuff in general, and that means we need to be focusing on product redesign and reduced consumption rather than on trying to maintain an unsustainable 'business as usual' economic model."

A spokesperson for UKRI said: “Innovation at scale is key to developing the technologies needed to tackle climate change and reach net zero. There is risk associated in innovating and commercialising research at this level, and Innovate UK works to manage this risk effectively as a custodian of public funds.”

The government environment department, Defra, told E&T that chemical recycling offers a “potential complementary route for plastic” but that “before fully endorsing chemical recycling, we need to understand any wider environmental impacts from the life cycles of different chemical recycling processes, including from emissions and residual outputs”.  

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