Barriers to Zero Waste / Technology / Toxins

Burning Plastics for Energy?

I was recently interviewed by Solid Waste & Recycling Magazine on the subject of burning plastics for energy. The interview was in response to a December 2012 Canadian study suggesting that landfilled plastics could be retrieved and used as fuel to power upwards of 600,000 cars and 500,000 households. However, the process of burning any type of waste to create energy is notoriously inefficient, dirty and harmful to the environment and human health. Furthermore, after the material is burned, the remaining ash, which is highly toxic, still needs to be landfilled where it is destined to leach into groundwater and soil (the EPA has officially noted that all landfills will inevitably leak).

Emissions released into the air from incineration have been linked to cancer and a host of other health problems

Emissions released into the air from incineration have been linked to cancer and a host of other health problems

Besides these basic facts, my greatest concern with burning plastic or any other waste for energy is that once you build these expensive incineration plants you have to continuously feed them. There’s no incentive to produce less waste or build better products that are durable, repairable and designed to last. And there’s no incentive to build and develop truly sustainable energy sources.

Burning waste for energy is often cited as a sustainable strategy that is in line with ‘zero waste’ policy. But just because we currently have lots of it, garbage is not a renewable resource. All the stuff we throw away is made from finite materials like fossil fuels (plastics) or is incredibly durable, reusable or recyclable (metals, glass, plastics).

We need to think about how we can make the best use of all items and materials by adhering to the principle of highest and best use. Rather than just concentrating on how to recover some value at the end of the line, we need to look upstream to the source of waste in the first place. These are true zero waste and sustainable strategies that consider longterm impacts and aim to eliminate all harm to the environment and human health while conserving resources.

***Read excerpts from the article below. ***

When Candice AndersonZero Waste Canada’s Ontario director, heard these figures, she told EcoLog News that it’s simply not worth it to recover energy from discarded plastics made from petroleum or natural gas in a chemical process. Waste-to-energy conversion is costly, she says, and it damages the environment while needing to send back more than 30 per cent of the processed waste back to the landfill anyway.

In her eyes, waste-to-energy is seen as a “slippery slope” that provides a crutch for unsustainable industry and postpones the reality of the waste problem, which is not what do to with the waste, but to identify the source of the waste. When tech companies keep racing to innovate new ways to treat waste, society gets farther away from the thinking that product design and actual waste generation are the culprits.

“Once we’ve built the plants, we’re required to feed them,” Anderson says of waste-to-energy facilities. “Why are we producing these materials to begin with?”

Read the article “Waste-to-energy delays progress, eco-group says” at Solid Waste & Recycling Magazine.

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5 thoughts on “Burning Plastics for Energy?

  1. Great to hear! I recently presented at a teacher’s college and talked about the importance of critical thinking about waste. For example, there’s lots of better options than recycling – how could you reuse the object in it’s current form (without extensive reprocessing as recycling requires), how could the design of this object be changed to make it more reusable, or the ultimate – do we even need this object? I think it’s great if we can get students to think critically about waste to see how we could avoid it in the first place rather than just making better use of it at the end of the. After all…as Cradle to Cradle authors say “Being less bad isn’t good enough!”

  2. We really need to just get rid of plastic altogether! There are so many alternatives. I just wish there were a way to make the world see that.

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