We already put together a general guide about the pros and cons of waste incineration.
In the interest of finding out the best way to dispose of plastic (and manage plastic waste), we’ve put together this guide outlining the pros and cons of burning/incinerating plastic specifically.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Burning/Incinerating Plastic
When it comes to disposing of plastic waste, incinerating or burning plastic for energy may be beneficial in some ways
Some of these benefits may include generating energy, getting rid of solid plastic waste, and providing an option for cities with little land for landfills – just to name a few.
But, there’s also drawbacks.
Some of these potential drawbacks might include air emissions, the cost of incineration or pyrolysis, plastic not being truly renewable, and others.
The reality is that it’s not always practical, possible or beneficial to burn plastic, or use it in waste for energy applications
The same can be said for recycling plastic, and also sending it to landfill.
The type of plastic, and plastic items and products need to be taken into consideration too (as each may present different challenges and variables)
Every local government needs to do a waste management assessment to figure out the best solution to manage or dispose of plastic in their region
The more sustainable options (compared to having to incinerate plastic) may be to use less total plastic, produce less total plastic waste, and re-use and repurpose plastic where possible and beneficial
Another way to say it is … reduce, reuse where possible, and then look at recycling … and then look at whether to bury or burn plastic
Pros Of Burning/Incinerating Plastic
Burning waste can produce a lot of energy
Enough to generate enough electricity for local grids in some instances. Energy from plastic can also be used for applications like providing energy to manufacture cement (bbc.com)
Plastic specifically as a material is more energy dense than coal
Because it’s made of hydrocarbons like oil (nationalgeographic.com). Some plastic is made from natural gas too
Plastic is a direct substitute for burning fossil fuels for energy in some instances
Burning plastic addresses one of the biggest perceived problems with plastic
Plastic takes a long time to degrade and break down.
This means plastic spends a longer time in landfills, or out polluting the environment than other materials.
Burning plastic addresses this problem (but admittedly, you are still left with emissions and waste ash to treat and manage)
If plastic production rates and totals increase into the future, burning plastic waste may be necessary
Especially in places that are scarce of land for landfill, or that lack the recycling facilities
Emissions and air pollutants from incinerators can be managed
With scrubbers, precipitators, and filters to capture toxic pollutants and compounds such as dioxins, acid gases, and heavy metals (nationalgeographic.com).
Bag rooms [also] bring [down] levels of pollution (treehugger.com)
Incinerator ash can be re-used or recycled, or simply treated and disposed of in a safe way
Pyrolysis may be the plastic burning method of the future
It has many benefits over conventional waste to energy and incineration, as well as over gasification (it doesn’t emit air pollution contaminants … only a small amount of CO2) (nationalgeographic.com)
Incineration of plastic provides an option for contaminated or non recyclable plastic
Not all plastic can be recycled, and a lot of plastic is rejected or sent away from recycling facilities for different reasons.
Incineration provides another option to dispose of this plastic next to landfill
Incineration can provide at least temporary relief for countries that need short term solutions to the China plastic import ban
Incineration can ease the pressure on landfills for example
Cons Of Burning/Incinerating Plastic
Plastic is not a renewable resource (yet)
So, plastic incineration does not mask the fact that plastic products and waste being generated in the first place is unsustainable and causes pollution in a lot of ways before plastic can be burnt.
Many sources indicate that incineration as it currently exists doesn’t contribute to a circular or sustainable society (pyrolysis can be the one exception to this though if the by products of plastic pyrolysis are used for new high quality material) (nationalgeographic.com).
Burning plastic can be a non eco friendly and non sustainable easy way out for many countries and cities looking to take shortcuts or make profit in getting rid of plastic
Incineration technology can be expensive, and hard to scale
Not every city and country can afford environmentally friendly or effective incineration technology.
For example a plant in Scandanavia spent a billion kroner to try to meet the European standards for dioxin [emissions] (treehugger.com).
Incineration can have various challenges that can make it harder to scale than say landfill.
For example, incinerator plants need guaranteed streams of waste coming to them to be economically feasible in many instances
Burning plastic isn’t always energy efficient
Plastics burned in incinerators set up to generate only electricity create heat at 25% efficiency. This is much lower than the 55% efficiency for new gas-fired power stations (bbc.com)
Recycling can be better than incineration of plastic in some ways
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, along with other household waste, can generate (nationalgeographic.com)
Air pollution and air contamination from incineration emissions can degrade air quality and impact human health
Toxic pollutants such as dioxins, acid gases, and heavy metals can be an issue. Additionally, these pollutants can only be captured with sophisticated technology, and the technology is only useful if combustion plants are properly operated and emissions controlled (nationalgeographic.com).
Some sources indicate US incineration plants don’t meet the environmental standards that some European ones do, nor do they have the latest pollution controls (treehugger.com).
Read more about waste incineration pollution, and ash control and management, in the thisiseco.co.uk resource below.
Greenhouse gases from incineration plants and plastics can be an issue
In 2016, U.S. waste incinerators released the equivalent of 12 million tons of carbon dioxide, more than half of which came from plastics (nationalgeographic.com).
When coal is phased out for generating electricity, incineration of unrecycled waste will be the most CO2-intensive form of generation (bbc.com)
Incineration ash can be hazardous and can be an issue
Waste to energy and incineration plants have incinerator ash that needs to be managed, recycled or disposed of in an eco friendly way
Even pyrolysis has it’s problems
Pyrolysis is an expensive and immature technology, and it is still cheaper to make diesel from fossil fuel than from waste plastic (nationalgeographic.com)
Some sources indicate landfill is more eco friendly than incineration
In environmental terms, it is generally better to bury plastic than to burn it … [and 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)
Other Resources On Disposing Of Plastic
1. Various other BMR guides on plastic and waste management