Could Chemical Recycling Be Part Of The Formula For A More Sustainable Future?
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Thought Leadership

January 3, 2024

Could Chemical Recycling Be Part Of The Formula For A More Sustainable Future?

Natalia Scherbakoff, Vice President, Technology & Innovation at Trinseo

This article was originally published on on December 18, 2023.

To paraphrase a line from Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

In the ever-evolving landscape of sustainability and recycling, the plastics industry stands at a crossroads. The world’s increasing dependence on plastics, coupled with mounting environmental concerns, has ignited a search for the right road (or the right set of innovations) to take to best tackle the plastic waste challenge.

One of the most promising opportunities is chemical recycling, a groundbreaking approach that holds the potential to transform how we view and manage plastic waste. Every industry that relies on plastics has the opportunity to redefine its relationship with waste. By embracing and investing in chemical recycling, there is an opportunity to reimagine how we produce, use and recover plastic so it becomes a testament of ingenuity, sustainability and responsible resource management. That’s good for business and good for our planet.

The Impact Of Chemistry On Sustainability

Chemical recycling represents a departure from traditional mechanical recycling. While mechanical recycling involves melting down plastic products for reuse, chemical recycling employs a more intricate process that breaks down plastics into their molecular components. This not only allows for the recycling of a wider variety of plastic types but also rejuvenates degraded plastics, reducing the manufacturing demand for virgin materials.

One of the prominent techniques in chemical recycling is pyrolysis. This method involves subjecting plastics to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, causing them to break down into oil-like substances known as pyrolysis oil or feedstock. This feedstock can be used as a raw material in the production of new plastics or as a source of energy. Pyrolysis not only sidesteps the limitations posed by contamination in mechanical recycling but also has the potential to handle mixed plastics that are currently challenging to recycle, but advances are also being made in this area with technologies like polycarbonate dissolution.

Another innovative approach is depolymerization, which involves breaking down plastic polymers into their original monomers. This enables the creation of high-quality raw materials that closely resemble virgin feedstock. Depolymerization can be particularly effective for recycling complex plastics, such as multilayer packaging, which are tough to recycle through traditional means.

With depolymerization in particular, something we are pursuing at Trinseo, there are a number of considerations and opportunities:

  • Advanced monomer recovery: The efficiency of monomer recovery processes is continuously improving, making it possible to recover a higher percentage of valuable monomers from plastic waste. This not only increases the yield of recycled materials but also reduces the environmental impact of plastic production.
  • Challenging plastic types: Future advancements aim to tackle challenging plastic types, such as mixed plastics and those with intricate chemical structures. Innovations in catalyst design and reaction conditions could unlock the potential to recycle plastics that were previously considered non-recyclable.
  • Energy efficiency: Efforts are underway to optimize the energy efficiency of depolymerization processes. By minimizing energy requirements and utilizing renewable energy sources, the environmental footprint of plastic recycling can be significantly reduced.
  • Integrated supply chains: Collaborations between recycling facilities and plastic manufacturers are fostering integrated supply chains. This synergy ensures a consistent flow of recycled materials to production processes, promoting a circular economy that maximizes resource efficiency.
  • Public support: As with any recycling program, the success of depolymerization technology relies on public awareness and engagement. Educational initiatives can empower consumers to make informed choices and properly dispose of plastic waste, ensuring a steady supply of recyclable materials.

While chemical recycling shows remarkable promise, it is not without its challenges. I’ll discuss this in further detail in part two of this series. Natalia Scherbakoff is a member of Forbes Technology Council.

Get more insights from Scherbakoff’s thought leadership by reading her posts published on