Chapter 6: Recycling Plastic Waste to Produce Chemicals - A Techno-Economic Analysis and Life-Cycle Assessment

Robert Baldwin, Eric Tan, Avantika Singh, Kylee Harris, Geetanjali Yadav

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This study presents the results of a preliminary assessment on the technology, economics, and sustainability of using waste plastics as a feedstock to produce low molecular weight olefins via pyrolysis and gasification pathways. We also studied the formation of formaldehyde - an important polymer precursor - via the gasification of waste plastics. Process pathways for recovery of ethylene and propylene and production of formaldehyde from a simulated mixed plastic waste were constructed based on literature data. They included direct and indirect pathways based on either gasification or pyrolysis as the primary conversion step. Results of these studies have shown that significant economic challenges exist of producing olefins via pyrolysis and gasification, with the latter pathway especially difficult. Base costs of pyrolysis naphtha from waste plastics are higher when compared to the same material produced from fossil feedstocks. Base olefin costs for one direct route are two times higher than comparable costs from steam cracking of fossil naphtha. These costs are driven primarily by feedstock costs; some pyrolysis scenarios become more economically feasible when very low feedstock costs are used. Similarly, for gasification, the cost of methanol - the central intermediate - was found to be noticeable higher when produced by gasification of waste plastics compared to current selling prices, which negatively impacts all pathways that go through methanol as the central intermediate. Life-cycle assessment indicates that the production of pyrolysis naphtha from plastics is a carbon intensive operation; no major advantages were found in terms of greenhouse gas emissions for any of the pathways producing C2 and C3 olefins. The results of this study can serve as the baseline for future comparison to other plastic waste valorization processes.
Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationSustainability Engineering: Challenges, Technologies, and Applications (1st ed.)
EditorsE. C. D. Tan
StatePublished - 2023

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/CH-5100-84646


  • circular economy
  • life cycle assessment
  • sustainability
  • techno-economic analysis
  • waste plastic valorization


Dive into the research topics of 'Chapter 6: Recycling Plastic Waste to Produce Chemicals - A Techno-Economic Analysis and Life-Cycle Assessment'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this