What is the best way to dispose of plastic?
Is it to recycle it, send it to landfill, or to incinerate it?
Are there other options to consider?
In the guide below, we look at what the best way to manage plastic waste might be, according to different environmental, economic, practical, and other indicators.
We also look at where most of the plastic waste generated currently ends up.
Summary – What Is The Best Way To Dispose Of Plastic?
What Is The Best Way To Dispose Of Plastic?
An accurate answer to this question depends on different factors and variables at play in each situation
We list and explain some of those factors and variables in the guide below
But, to give a general summary of which option might be best, we’ve done so under different measurables below …
From an environmental perspective, eliminating plastic waste or reducing it may be a top priority
Beyond that, one study indicates that re-using a plastic item or material as many times as you can before throwing it away or disposing of it is preferable (and in the case of plastic bags, using it as a bin liner after you can’t use it for shopping any more for example).
Beyond that, one study indicates that recycling had the lowest global warming potential and energy use when compared to landfill and incineration
Other studies also indicate recycling plastics saves energy compared to making virgin plastic
A separate study indicates that incineration was the most environmentally friendly option specifically for plastic bags (where other plastic items are not taken into account)
Lastly, another report indicates that landfill, or burying plastic, is specifically better than incineration from an environmental perspective. Having said that, other reports indicate some incineration plants can remove ash and pollutants from emissions, and re-use bottom ash for different applications, but, some incineration plants may not fully remove CO2 from emissions
So, what is best environmentally seems to differ depending on the variables at play.
Economic considerations can relate to cost of each waste disposal option, as well as profitability and also the employment or job creation ability
The costs of each option can vary, but, incineration can be expensive to set up and to run, depending on the technology used
The profitability of recycling can vary – only some plastics might make economic sense or be profitable to recycle, although recycling may have good potential to create jobs in some instances
Dumping rates of landfills can vary between cities and towns, but some landfills can be cheaper compared to some recycling or incineration programs and facilities
– Human Health
The human health impact of different waste disposal options might be more subjective and it’s possible some waste disposal options may cause little or no human health impact
But, some incineration may have some potential concerns relating to air pollution and waste by-products
Some landfills may have some potential concerns relating to contamination of surrounding soil or water, or plastic that leaks and becomes pollution
To use one example of a practical consideration, plastics that can’t be recycled at all will have to go to landfill or incineration, and, plastics that can’t be recycled anymore past their recycling limit will have to go to landfill or incineration
There’s other practical considerations for each waste management option in the guide below
There are ultimately pros and cons to each waste management option
There’s also different plastic types, plastic items, and cities and towns with different waste management systems to consider as different variables and factors
Each city or town may have different ideal waste management strategies and solutions, and use a different % share of each waste management option, depending on the local variables and factors at play
There may be a way to utilise and maximize each option for different types of plastics and plastic items, without excluding one of them altogether
Options Other Than Landfill, Recycling & Incineration
There are options for managing plastic waste other than landfill, recycling and landfill
Some of these options may be better in several ways
Some of these options may include:
– Eliminating plastic waste in the first instance i.e. going zero waste
– Substituting plastic for a different material where practical and where the substitute material is more beneficial to use
– Reducing plastic waste
– Re-using plastic before it becomes waste, so it has a lower waste rate
– Upcycling and downcycling plastic, and repurposing plastic
– Developing technologies that may help manage plastic waste in the future, including but not limited to technology that turns plastic back into oil, plastic eating bacteria, other plastic eating organisms, and so on
We’ve discussed the above options and other options in our guide about better managing plastic going into the future.
theguardian.com indicates that using less plastic and re-using the plastic we do use might be the best approach:
… [instead of recycling plastic, a better approach might be] use less, re-use more, recycle the rest
It should begin with the producer: use less plastic packaging [and consumers can also buy and use less plastic]
theguardian.com also indicates that rather than recycling, solutions that can be implements might include education, uniformity in recycling procedures and processes, and penalties for plastic polluters could be other options:
… educate about recycling and the risk of contamination, more on-street bins for the most valuable, food-quality, plastics.
Uniformity [in recycling procedures and processes] across the UK would be a bonus, but at the moment every council has a different contract and different standards [which can make economics hard].
[Making] the polluter pay [is another option]
Where Most Plastic Currently Ends Up
There’s a range of places plastic can end up
Of the main three waste management options, most plastic ends up in landfills. However, a greater % of plastic could end up in incineration and recycling in the future on a global scale
The rest of plastic ends up as litter on beaches and land, as plastic pollution in soil, freshwater sources and the ocean, and as microplastics and nanoplastics
Factors & Variables That Might Impact What The ‘Best’ Disposal Option Is
Different factors and variables might include:
– The type of plastic, and also the type of plastic product
For example, PET plastic bottles might be recycled at far higher rates than other types of plastic and types of plastic items in some places
In comparison, some other types of plastic and plastic items like straws and bags might not be recycled at as high rates
– The waste management programs, technology, facilities and systems in a particular town or city
Not all cities and towns have the same waste management systems in place, and therefore have different capabilities to manage waste compared to each other
As one example, some lower income regions may only have access to dumping sites, and not advanced landfill sites, or recycling or incineration facilities. There’s a big difference between well contained and managed landfill sites, and open dumping sites, uncontained landfill sites that leak or have an inadequate liner and leachate management system.
Different cities may also use different incineration technology than one another (some may use air pollutant, emissions, and waste capture and control devices and technology for example, and some may not). There’s also different ways to incinerate plastic – waste to energy is only one form of burning plastic – gasification and pyrolysis are examples of others. Different cities and towns may use different methods.
There’s a big difference between well contained and managed landfill sites, and uncontained landfill sites that leak or have an inadequate liner and leachate management system. The same can be said for incineration and recycling facilities that are very advanced, and those that aren’t
blog.nationalgeographic.org alludes to the variability factors of waste management in different towns and cities:
[Waste management systems are] dictated by market demand, price determinations, local regulations [and government], the success of which is contingent upon everyone, from the product-designer, to the trash-thrower, to the waste collector, to the recycling factory worker.
[Public investment in waste management can play a big role in what waste management systems become established in a city or town]
– What indicator or measurable is being used
‘Best’ can be measured in different ways, such as what is best environmentally, economically, socially, from a human health perspective, practically, and so on
Even within one area of measurement such as environmental for example, there are many different ways to measure eco friendly – greenhouse gas emissions, water use, energy use, waste by products, and so on
How ‘best’ is being measured matters
– The assumptions made in different reports and case studies
Different reports and case studies make different assumptions about things like the plastic waste, the waste management options used, and so on
These assumptions can affect what waste management option might rate best in these reports and case studies
What Is The Most Environmentally Friendly Way To Dispose Of Plastic?
For the purposes of this guide, we look at what other publications say about the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of plastic is …
– OurWorldInData.org ‘FAQ On Plastics’ Report, under ‘Recycling, Landfill, or Incineration: Which Should We Choose?’ section
In this report, they look at the best way to dispose of plastic when taking into account global warming potential, and energy use of each disposal method.
What they find is “Recycling had the lowest global warming potential and energy use across nearly all of the studies. From an environmental perspective, recycling is usually the best option”
But, this finding is based on the conditions that:
1. Recycled material is a one-for-one displacement of primary plastic production
2. Most plastic can only be recycled once or twice … so, recycling only delays — rather than prevents — disposal in landfill or incineration,
and 3. Whilst recycling has clear environmental benefits, it’s not always the most economically-favourable choice
– mst.dk ‘Life Cycle Assessment Of Grocery Carrier Bags’ Report
We analysed this report separately in another guide comparing different materials of carrier bags too.
This report is specifically for plastic carrier bags in Denmark.
For plastic bags, re-using the bag as many times as possible, re-using the bag as a bin liner, and incineration (in that order), might be the most environmentally friendly ways to make use of a plastic bag, and eventually dispose of it (outlined on page 16 of the report).
The report takes into account these environmental measures – climate change, ozone depletion, human toxicity cancer and non-cancer effects, photochemical ozone formation, ionizing radiation, particulate matter, terrestrial acidification, terrestrial eutrophication, marine eutrophication, freshwater eutrophication, ecosystem toxicity, resource depletion, fossil and abiotic, and depletion of water resource.
There may be some limitations to the report though which are outlined on page 24 – “This study does not include the assessment of other types of carriers, such as personal bags or bags provided by other retailers. The report does not consider behavioural changes or consequences of introducing further economic measures. The study does not take into account economic consequences for retailers and carrier bag producers. The environmental assessment does not take into account the effects of littering.”
So, it’s possible more comprehensive assessments could change or modify the findings of this report.
Separate to the two reports, other publications have this to say about the environmental aspect of disposing of plastic:
Some [incineration] technology may remove harmful ash and pollutants from emissions, but may leave in CO2 (thisiseco.co.uk)
The IBA (Incinerator Bottom Ash) and other waste by products of incineration can be recycled and re-used for applications like construction, and bulk fill (thisiseco.co.uk), or road sub layers (printwaste.co.uk)
Studies have shown that recycling plastic waste saves more energy—by reducing the need to extract fossil fuel and process it into new plastic—than burning it … (nationalgeographic.com)
We can reduce energy usage by 66% … when we use recycled plastics to make new plastic products …
Plus, for every one ton of plastic we recycle, we save the equivalent of 1,000–2,000 gallons of gasoline
… whilst recycling has clear environmental benefits, it’s not always the most economically-favourable choice (ourworldindata.org)
– Landfill & Burying Plastic
In environmental terms, it is generally better to bury plastic than to burn it … (bbc.com)
Economic Considerations When Disposing Of Plastic
When looking at cost, profitability and job creation measurables, the summaries of disposing of plastic in different ways might be:
How expensive each waste management option is depends on the city and local conditions. Some figures indicate recycling is cheapest per ton, followed by landfill, and then incineration. But, costs per ton in each location can vary, and can also change over time because of different variables and factors and conditions
Plastic is a material can be cheaper for companies to make new from virgin materials than to recycle.
[There is the case to be made] that burying waste plastic in landfill is actually a cheap form of carbon capture and storage (bbc.com)
… whilst recycling has clear environmental benefits, it’s not always the most economically-favourable choice (ourworldindata.org)
Incineration can be expensive in terms of capital and raw costs, but, there needs to be some consideration that plastic tends to provide good/dense energy when burnt (because it is generally made with fossil fuels) – so, waste for energy incineration may be more economically viable than letting plastic that can’t be recycled sit in landfill in some instances (just as one example).
Some plastics are profitable to recycle whilst some aren’t
Some of the factors that can impact the profitability of recycling plastics can include:
Plastic as a material doesn’t always have the market value of other materials like metal for example when it comes to recycling
The market demand for plastic can go up and down, oil prices can fluctuate and impact price, and different local markets can have different factors that influence the recycling of plastic.
From Wikipedia.org: “Compared with lucrative recycling of metal, and similar to the low value of glass recycling, plastic polymers recycling is often more challenging because of low density and low value.”
… unlike the glass and metal industries [, the plastics industry rarely uses recycled plastics in many of their products] (ecologycenter.org)
Recycling processes can often lead to products of lower quality and economic value — often termed ‘downcycling’
The relative profitability between recycling and the production of new plastic is strongly determined by oil prices. When oil prices are low, it can be cheaper to make raw plastics than to recycle
Some local recycling markets can create up to 20 times more jobs than landfill does
Human Health Considerations When Disposing Of Plastic
The impact of different plastic disposal options on human health is more of a speculative consideration.
Some of the ways different disposal methods might have the potential to impact human health directly or indirectly might be:
If flues, dioxin capture, and other air pollutant or air emission devices aren’t set up or installed on incinerators, air pollution may be an issue for some incineration plants. And, air pollution may impact air quality for humans in some places
Carbon may also be contained in some emissions
Additionally, some incinerator waste may have the potential to be hazardous, and it needs the proper waste treatment and management processes to ensure it’s safely disposed of
Some plastics (such as some types of PVC as on example) in some landfills that lack adequate landfill liners and leachate management systems may leach chemicals and might contaminate soil and water sources close to the landfill site that humans may eventually come into contact with.
Plastic may also leak from uncontained landfills in some places, absorb and spread persistent organic pollutants like pesticides in the environment, and may also break down into microplastics.
Practical Considerations For Disposing Of Plastic
There’s a whole range of practical considerations for determining the best disposal options for plastic waste.
Some we have mentioned in the guide above. But, a list of some of the main practical considerations as a summary might be:
– Only some plastics can be recycled or effectively recycled
– Some plastics are rejected from recycling facilities for a variety of reasons
– Recycling plastic may only delay that plastic eventually ending up in landfills or being incinerated anyway
– Some cities and towns might be land scarce, and landfills may less suitable for these places
– Having money to fund waste management investment, and to run waste management programs and systems is a significant factor in the waste management capabilities of each city and town
Where Does Most Plastic Waste Currently End Up?
In terms of plastic that ends up going to waste management, about 40% to 55% of plastic goes to landfill, followed by incineration in second, and recycling in last.
This is evidenced by looking at the low average recycling rate of plastic globally (especially compared to some other materials)
Having said this, some forecasts indicate that recycling and/or incineration may make up a greater shares of plastic waste management than landfill in the future as waste management systems, strategies and policies change
Some cities in some countries already divert a significant % of their plastic to recycling for example
Mismanaged and littered plastic also makes up a % of plastic waste, and ends up in places other than landfill sites, recycling plants, and incineration plants.
Some plastic ends up littered on land and on beaches, and some plastic ends up mismanaged and ends up in rivers, and in the ocean as plastic pollution
About a third of all plastic waste ends up in the soil and freshwater sources, and about 10% of all plastic produced ends up in the ocean.
Plastic also breaks down into micro plastics and nanoplastics, and ends up in a range of places such as drinking water, the human body, in wild life, and more
Other Resources On Disposing Of Plastic, & Other Types Of Waste
Pros & Cons Of Recycling Plastic
Pros & Cons Of Sending Plastic To Landfill
Pros & Cons Of Burning & Incinerating Plastic
Landfill vs Recycling vs Incineration vs Composting: Comparison, & Which Is Best?
Recent Global Plastic Production Trend, & Future Forecast
The trend and forecast for global plastic production in the past and future include:
– Since the year 1950, annual plastic production has significantly increased
– Plastic production could increase four fold from today’s levels by the year 2050
… With this trend and forecast in mind, finding out the best way to manage plastic waste may be an important decision to make for cities and towns going forward.