Get ready for the onslaught of "smart plastic incineration"

Trump visits plastics plant
© US President Donald Trump speaks at the Shell Chemicals Petrochemical Complex on August 13, 2019/ Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

You are going to hear a lot about this. It makes everybody's problems go poof. Just don't mention the CO2.

The President of the United States visited a new plastics facility outside of Pittsburgh recently. Even Fox News wrote that his visit was "in keeping with an ongoing push by his administration to increase the economy’s dependence on fossil fuels in defiance of increasingly urgent warnings about climate change. It also represented an embrace of plastic at a time when the world is sounding alarms over its ubiquity and impact."

According to Shell Oil, "The plant will use low-cost ethane from shale gas producers in the Marcellus and Utica basins to produce 1.6 million tonnes of polyethylene each year." Some expressed worry that this plastic was a problem, but according to Associated Press, the President said the plastic in the ocean was “not our plastic. It's plastics that's floating over in the ocean and the various oceans from other places." So there.

The President is going to get to cut a lot of ribbons on plastics plants. The oil companies are building them by the hundreds, investing $260 billion to soak up all the natural gas that they are having trouble selling. So they build ethane cracking plants to turn ethane, a component of natural gas, into ethylene, which is then polymerized into polyethylene, then formed into nurdles that are shipped out to customers. (Read more about nurdle pollution in Quartz.)

This is happening everywhere there is gas and oil; $20 billion is being invested in petrochemical plants to soak up Alberta gas. Altogether, they will produce 40 percent more plastic than is being churned out now. This plastic goes into all kinds of useful things, but mostly into single-use plastics, which are not being recycled because, with gas prices so low, it is cheaper and easier to use virgin plastic than recycled, which has to be sorted and cleaned and processed. This is why other countries are rejecting North American plastics: it's not worth anything.

This is why we are going to start seeing a whole lot of marketing of "smart incineration" and "waste to energy." Plastics are essentially solid fossil fuels, so if you burn them, you can conveniently turn them into heat and electricity and the problem is solved. Forget about the circular economy; this is as linear as it gets.

Many point to what's happening in Sweden and Denmark, where waste is incinerated but the process is so clean that almost nothing toxic gets out and people are happy to have incinerators in the middle of their cities built as tourist attractions.

the view from copenhagenLloyd Alter/ the view from Copenhagen/CC BY 2.0

For example, Planetizen pitches the Amager Bakke facility in Copenhagen as "a Global Model of Sustainable Design" (see my tour of it here). It points to a long article in the Planning Report describing how clean it is, how the flue gases are scrubbed. But there is one pollutant that they barely mention: Carbon Dioxide. Because burning plastic is essentially burning fossil fuels that have taken an intermediate journey through your takeout container.

view of buildingLloyd Alter/ chimney putting out pure water vapour and CO2/CC BY 2.0

They call the electricity from the plant "low-carbon energy" but that's only because municipal waste is about half organic, wood and paper, biomass which is still considered "carbon neutral" because the carbon hasn't been stored very long or as the EPA says, is "generated from living organisms and is already in the planet ’s carbon cycle." But it's still CO2, no different than the CO2 that comes from burning fossil fuels. Had it been left in the tree or turned into buildings, the CO2 would have been stuck in the wood for many decades to come. Instead, it's being released in a big CO2 burp right now. Even the EPA notes that burning municipal solid waste (MSW) releases more CO2 per megawatt generated than burning coal, but discounts the biomass, and essentially treats the plastic as a fossil fuel:

Per unit of electricity produced, the MSW combustion facilities generate less GHGs than coal or oil, but slightly more GHGs per unit energy than natural gas...The value reported on this website for MSW (2,988 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour) includes emissions for both the biogenic and fossil fractions of MSW. However, when considering carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from MSW combustion, it is necessary to count only emissions from fossil fuel-based products, like plastics.

Co2 per megawatt hourEPA/Public Domain

So burning municipal waste puts out in total more CO2 than burning coal, and the plastics alone put out almost as much as burning natural gas. Everybody is doing this, pretending it is low carbon by discounting the biomass. So who thinks this is clean, low carbon fuel?

There are articles like this one in Engineering and Technology, Smart plastic incineration posited as solution to global recycling crisis.

They interview a Dutch professor, Raymond Gradus, who claims that "incineration of low-grade plastic, if done appropriately, is not harmful and exhibits a viable economic and environmental solution to the current plastic disposition crisis."

There is the formation of astroturfing organizations like the The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, formed by the petrochemical industry to "to support alternative materials and delivery systems, beef up recycling programs, and—more controversially—promote technologies that convert plastics to fuel or energy."

As Elizabeth Royte noted in National Geographic,

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.

the power of waste© American Chemistry Council

There is a reason organizations like the American Chemistry Council promote the power of waste: They are the spokespeople for the petrochemical industry. They want you to feel good about buying plastics and burning plastics.

energy bag© Hefty Energy Bag

The Hefty Energy Bag campaign has been met with a mix of hilarity and disgust, but we are going to see a lot more of this. Recycling is broken, nobody wants more landfills, governments want more "producer responsibility", and the petrochemical industry wants to sell more gas and make more plastic.

This is why we are going to hear so much more about "smart incineration" and "the power of waste" : It makes everybody's problems go poof. Just don't mention the CO2.

Get ready for the onslaught of "smart plastic incineration"
You are going to hear a lot about this. It makes everybody's problems go poof. Just don't mention the CO2.

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