What is “chemical recycling”?

Jane Merchant
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March 14, 2022
chemical recycling

According to the United Nations (UN), pollution from pesticides, plastics and electronic waste contributed to more global deaths than Covid-19 in 2020.

As a result, the UN Human Rights Council has declared clean environments to be a human right. Over 175 nations have endorsed a legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution by 2024.

Participating countries will need to adjust their design, production, and disposal of plastic. Currently, less than 10% of plastic is recycled, leaving almost 500 tonnes in landfills and polluting the oceans.

A natural solution to the issue may be chemical recycling. Unlike traditional recycling, this method accepts a wide range of plastics and converts them into base chemicals that can be reused.

Read on to find out more about chemical recycling and how it may affect your sustainability efforts.

chemical recycling

What is chemical recycling?

Traditional recycling is the process of melting down thermoplastic materials so they can be moulded into new products.

However, this process is expensive and can produce inconsistent results. Additionally, it has strict sorting and degradation requirements, which means more than half of all plastic cannot be recycled.

In some cases, the process of turning plastics back into oil – known as chemical recycling – could replace traditional methods. This is because it can handle multi-layered and laminated plastics.

Furthermore, it can break down traditionally recycled plastics even further, making them truly circular in nature.

Many types of chemical recycling methods are available. For example, purification is a process whereby plastics are dissolved in solvents to separate their polymers from additives and contaminants.

An alternative method is depolymerisation, which reverses the polymerisation process to create single-monomer molecules or shorter polymer fragments.

This process is best used for plastics such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). However, it will not work for polypropylene (PP), low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or polyethylene (PE).

The last method is feedstock recycling, which uses a thermochemical treatment called pyrolysis and gasification to convert polymers into base chemicals. These can then be processed into plastics or crude oil.

Unlike depolymerisation, feedstock recycling is better suited to contaminated and mixed-polymer waste, such as plastic bottles and food packaging.

recyclable coffee bags

Is chemical recycling better for coffee packaging?

Coffee packaging makes up around 3% of the global coffee supply chain’s carbon footprint. On the consumer side, this includes flexible plastic bags or pouches.

Flexible plastic has a smaller carbon footprint than rigid plastic, metal, or glass packaging. Furthermore, it is more suitable for safely packaging ground or whole bean coffee.

However, because coffee packaging typically has additional components, such as labels and degassing valves, it can make them more difficult to recycle. Multilayer bags that have aluminium lining will also need to be separated before recycling.

As such, chemical recycling and coffee packaging seem like a natural pairing, as this recycling method can clear up confusion about how to dispose of coffee bags.

Consumers would not have to separate plastic lined or coated packaging that contains these additional components. Hypothetically, this allows them to dispose of an entire empty package in one bin.

Yet despite its benefits, chemical recycling has a long way to go before it becomes convenient and affordable enough to use on a wide scale.

The demand for chemical recycling needs to grow, along with the number of industrial and commercial plants dedicated to the process. Specifically, the infrastructure for chemical recycling collection, sorting, and processing needs a strong focus.

According to McKinsey & Company, governments and businesses worldwide would need to invest an estimated $20 billion a year to ensure at least half of all plastic is chemically recycled by 2030.

Head of Plastic Waste and Business for the World Wildlife Fund, Erin Simon believes chemical recycling could lessen the amount of waste entering landfills each year. However, the way in which the method is used and implemented is what matters most.

“Instead of focusing on recycling, we should prioritise solutions that support wide-scale system change, such as reducing single-use plastic consumption and scaling up reuse,” she says in an article for GreenBiz. “The waste crisis is too complex to rely on any single innovation or intervention to save the day.”

sustainable coffee packaging

How to ensure your coffee packaging gets recycled

It could be some time before chemical recycling replaces traditional methods.

Until then, roasters should continue to work with the recycling and processing systems available to prevent their packaging from ending up in landfills.

They can also switch to packaging made from materials such as unlined kraft paper or rice paper, with a recyclable degassing valve.

Additionally, they can use packaging to educate consumers about what to do with their bags once they have been used. Printing clear instructions on how to disassemble and dispose of coffee bags can help consumers understand the recycling process.

For roasters using plastic or aluminium lined packaging, partnering with a packaging collection scheme can help reach sustainability goals.

For instance, specialty roasters around the world can request a collection bin from Terracycle – a company that helps retailers collect and recycle “hard-to-recycle- waste”.

Roasters can ask consumers to return empty packaging to receive a small discount, while explaining the story behind the promotion.

Once the collection bin is full, it can be sent back to Terracycle who will ensure it is properly sorted, processed, and recycled.

recyclable coffee packaging

In the future, chemical recycling could become the preferred method of tackling the plastic waste crisis. In the meantime, roasters can make the switch to coffee packaging that is designed to be recycled and reused.

At MTPak Coffee, we can provide a packaging solution that protects and brands your coffee without adding to the world’s current waste problem.

Our range of fully recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable coffee bags include kraft paper, rice paper, LDPE, and PLA.

What’s more, we can brand your coffee packaging with easy-to-read recycling instructions using sustainable water-based inks. Our inks are not only resistant to abrasion, water, and heat, but also compostable and easy to remove for recycling.

For more information about our recyclable coffee bags, contact the team

What is “chemical recycling”?

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