Is burning plastic waste a good idea? No.
TreeHugger has long been a fan of Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania and Garbage Land: On the secret trail of trash. She knows her stuff when it comes to single-use plastic. As part of a National Geographic series on Planet or Plastic, she looks at the question: Is burning plastic waste a good idea? She notes that the Europeans think so, and consider it a renewable resource:
Exactly. We have called plastics a solid fossil fuel, which puts out more CO2 per kWh generated than burning coal. We have also noted that we have to aim for a circular economy, where stuff is reused, not burned or landfilled.
It considers energy generated from burning any kind of carbon-based municipal waste renewable and thus eligible for subsidies. But plastics aren’t renewable in the sense that wood, paper, or cotton are. Plastics don’t grow from sunlight: We make them from fossil fuels extracted from the ground, and each step in that process has the potential to pollute.
“When you take fossil fuels out of the ground, make plastics with them, then burn those plastics for energy, it's clear that this is not a circle—it's a line,” says Rob Opsomer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes circular economy efforts.
And surprise! Royte notes that the industry is promoting this.
This past January, a consortium of petrochemical and consumer-goods companies called the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, including Exxon, Dow, Total, Shell, Chevron Phillips, and Procter & Gamble, committed to spending $1.5 billion over five years on the problem. Their aim is to support alternative materials and delivery systems, beef up recycling programs, and—more controversially—promote technologies that convert plastics to fuel or energy.
Of course they are. Look at this list, every single company with a vested interest in pumping more oil and making more plastic. There is a direct line from Susan Spotless to Keep America Beautiful to the latest "energy bags" – looking for new ways to make us feel more comfortable and acquiescent to using single-use plastics. They also keep the regulators who would ban them at bay by putting together a beautiful website and an investment of $ 1.5 billion that is piddly compared to the $180 billion the industry is investing to produce 40 percent more plastic.
It becomes so much easier to sell the stuff and avoid regulations if they can say “Look! It’s renewable fuel! It’s energy independence! That's not a bag of garbage, it's a bag of energy!" They will do anything to convince us that plastics are fine and that it is business as usual.
And what a video, interspersed with images of space suits and the wonders of plastics, and lots of smiling people picking up the industry's garbage from beaches, all further reinforcement that it is the consumers' fault and responsibility, not theirs.
Zero-waste advocates worry that any approach to converting plastic waste into energy does nothing to reduce demand for new plastic products and even less to mitigate climate change. “To uplift these approaches is to distract from real solutions,” says Claire Arkin, a campaigner with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
Exactly. I have written before that the only thing dumber than burning single-use plastics is making them in the first place.