Environmental Laboratory

  • Can We Burn Plastic Waste?

Can We Burn Plastic Waste?

Mar 12 2018 Read 2311 Times

At the beginning of the year, China announced that it will no longer accept overseas waste for recycling. Given that the UK shipped roughly 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste to nations such as China in 2014, it’s clear that an alternative method to disposing of this plentiful waste will now have to be found.

While it is, of course, far preferable to recycle plastics than dispose of them in any other way, there is still a huge surplus of plastic waste that has been contaminated by other refuse and must, therefore, be destroyed. But it is environmentally feasible and ethical to burn it?

The case for combustion

Due to the fact that it’s constructed from oil and gas, plastic creates a significant amount of heat when burned. As a result, it’s possible to harness this energy source during combustion and thus recycle the plastic by turning it back into a usable commodity. Indeed, if the plant is equipped with the capability to use the waste heat to warm nearby buildings, then it becomes even more logical.

According to the Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES), the energy created by combusted waste in 2016 was equivalent to 2.5 million tonnes of fossil fuels. What’s more, plastics which are destined for the landfill (including and especially microplastics) often find their way into our seas and rivers, thus contaminating the water on this planet, as well. As a result, many people (including the director of the Environmental Services Association [ESA]) believe that burning plastics makes far more sense than burying it.

The case against

On the other hand, opponents of burning plastic point out that plastic incinerating plants only operate at 25% efficiency, making them a poor alternative to new natural gas plants (which are capable of 55% efficiency). Moreover, burning plastic also releases a wide array of toxins and dioxins into the air – in fact, burning plastic is second only to burning coal in terms of CO2 production.

Critics also fear that if plastic incinerators are built to deal with the surplus plastic waste caused by China’s decision not to accept any more, it will create a justifiable demand for the stuff. Instead, they say, we should be focusing our efforts more on eliminating plastic waste altogether through the practice of reducing, reusing and recycling. Therefore, it makes more sense to bury our surplus waste at the moment, thus achieving an affordable method of carbon capture and storage, rather than burning it.

The verdict

Due to the inefficiency of the process and the contamination caused by burning plastics, it does indeed seem logical that we should bury that which we can’t recycle. However, the real focus should still be on weening ourselves off this highly durable and apparently indispensable commodity, at least as a waste product. Aiming for a target of 2042, we must try and reduce the level of plastic waste to zero if at all possible.

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