The role of chemical and solvent-based recycling within a sustainable circular economy for plastics

April 7, 2024


Chemical and solvent-based recycling of plastic waste may help overcome some of the challenges faced by predominantly applied mechanical recycling techniques. This study quantifies the environmental impacts of chemical and solvent-based recycling as a function of varying process parameters and product composition using life cycle assessment. Furthermore, potential benefits and impacts on a system level are determined. To that end, a high-resolution material flow analysis is conducted for the reference system of Switzerland, covering all main plastic types and applications. In a scenario for the year 2040, we employ environmentally beneficial mechanical recycling where possible and convey suitable remaining waste streams to chemical or solvent-based recycling processes. Applying chemical or solvent-based recycling as a complement to maximum mechanical recycling, instead of thermal treatment with energy recovery, may achieve a reduction in the climate change impact of the system ranging from less than 10 % to almost 40 %. For achieving high environmental benefits, proper process choice and configuration are crucial. Dissolution or depolymerization provide higher benefits relative to other chemical recycling processes, but can only treat certain waste streams and require prior sorting into plastic types. Pyrolysis and gasification appeared to only have the ability to achieve substantial benefits over incineration if their output products can substitute high-impact chemicals and provided that efficient heat transfer and recovery is warranted when implemented on a large scale. As industrial-scale plants for chemical or solvent-based plastic recycling are still lacking, the upscaling potential and the environmental benefits achievable in practice are highly uncertain today.


Klotz, Magdalena et al. “The role of chemical and solvent-based recycling within a sustainable circular economy for plastics.” The Science of the total environment (2023): 167586 .