We’ve already put together a guide on the pros and cons of landfills in general.
But, in the interest of finding out the best way to dispose of plastic, we’ve put together this guide outlining the pros and cons of sending plastic (specifically) to landfill.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Sending Plastic To Landfill
When it comes to disposing of plastic waste, sending plastic to landfill may be beneficial in some ways, such as being a cheap and easy alternative where incineration and recycling isn’t feasible, providing a home for plastic waste that is hard to recycle, and not having the emissions problems that incineration might.
Some of the drawbacks may include that some cities or countries don’t have land for landfill, plastic is being stored when it could be incinerated for energy, plastic is being stored when it could be reused in some way, and unsecured landfills can lead to plastic getting out into the environment
The same can be said for recycling and burning plastic though i.e. there’s pros and cons to each of these options too
The type of plastic, and plastic items and products need to be taken into consideration too (as each may present different challenges and variables)
Plastic in landfill seems to get a bad reputation in a lot of places, whilst recycling plastic or sending it to waste for energy incineration can be seen as magic bullets or clear cut solutions
The reality is that it’s not always practical, possible or beneficial to recycle plastic or burn it for energy (for various reasons)
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 landfill) may be to use less total plastic, produce less total plastic waste, and re-use and repurpose plastic where possible and beneficial
Pros Of Sending Plastic To Landfill
Every city has different waste management collection and disposal systems, technology and facilities
In a specific city, landfill may be the best option across a range of indicators and considerations compared to incineration/waste to energy, and recycling, for some types of plastic and plastic items.
As one example, recycling and incineration technology in a particular city may be so inefficient, ineffective or have so many drawbacks, that landfill by default becomes the best disposal option for some types of plastic or all plastics
Some plastics are non recyclable or present major challenges to recycle
Landfill may be the best option for these plastics (where incineration is also not possible or not beneficial).
Apart from the non recyclable plastics example, recycling can be more expensive, time consuming, resource consuming and energy consuming
Ability to isolate plastic to one location
In a landfill with a good landfill liner, effective leachate management system, and one that is well contained/secure/closed off around the perimeter, at least plastic is being isolated to one area with less risk of external pollution problems arising
Potential advantages over incineration
Plastic in landfill is less of a chance to cause air pollution and air contamination issues (and subsequently less likely to degrade air quality) compared to incineration
Plastic doesn’t emit GHGs in landfill like other materials might
This means it doesn’t emit methane in landfill like organic material like food scraps does
The end destination for a lot of plastic (if not the environment) is landfill anyway
A lot of plastic eventually ends up in landfill any way due to a range of reasons, such as being rejected at recycling facilities (contamination is one reason for this), or the fact that plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times any way before they degrade in quality and performance too much to be recycled again
Landfill may be more beneficial in the short term for countries with money and organisational problems
Landfill is a much cheaper, easier, and quicker option to have at least one effective mode of plastic disposal/management for some lower income countries, regions and cities.
The same may also apply to places with a lack of good organisational, institutional, and political structures
Plastic takes up less space in landfill than some other materials
An indirect benefit of plastic in landfill is that it takes up less space than other materials like paper in landfill
Cons Of Sending Plastic To Landfill
Plastic still takes up space in landfill, and can occupy that space for a long time
Plastic takes a very long time to break down and degrade (it’s not actually known how long some plastics take to fully break down).
So, plastic in landfill may be sitting there for a very long time taking up space and resources while it breaks down
Recycling may be more beneficial in some ways than landfill
Some types of plastic may provide more benefit economically, socially or environmentally when recycled compared to being disposed of in landfill
Incineration and burning plastic for energy may be more beneficial in some ways than landfill
Some types of plastic may provide far more benefit economically, socially or environmentally when incinerated or when used for ‘waste for energy’ – especially when the incineration technology can severely minimise or eliminate air pollution, and there is an effective method in place to deal with incinerator ash and waste
Unsecure, uncontained and open landfill and dumping sites can be an issue
Plastic can leak/escape into the environment (creating plastic pollution problems) when disposed of in an unsecure or open landfill, or in open dumping sites
Some plastics may be more of a problem than others in landfills
There’s debate over the toxicity and leaching of specific types of plastic in landfills, such as some types of PVC and plastics with synthetic additives.
Landfill liners and leachate management can somewhat help with this.
But, even liners need to be replaced after a certain amount of time
Some plastic problems can only be solved by not producing as much plastic in the first place
So, landfills can help with some problems, but, the preferable option across many sustainability indicators may be to not produce or use as much plastic in the first place
Other Resources On Disposing Of Plastic
1. Various other BMR guides on plastic and waste management