Single-Use Plastics Are Being Incinerated Instead of Recycled in the USA

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©. Waste to energy plant, Copenhagen/ Courtesy ARC

All that is solid waste melts into air.

The dirty little secret of recycling in the USA is that it mostly never happened; some materials, like aluminum, are valuable enough to recycle in North America, and Amazon never has enough cardboard. But it was really all a ruse to make us feel good about single-use packaging and to avoid producer responsibility. Most of the plastic waste was stuck in shipping containers and sold to China, where plentiful cheap labour could separate the dirty from the clean and the polypropylene from the styrene.

So when China closed its doors to dirty plastics, American cities had a problem. Landfills are filling up, cities are turning to incineration, or as they like to call it, waste-to-energy. This is common in Scandinavia, and they used to do it in the plant shown in the photo above. Except it was closed because it couldn't meet the tough European standards for dioxin, so they spent a billion kroner or so to have Bjarke design the fancy new Amager Bakke facility with the ski run on the roof.

Covanta emissions

© Covanta

In the USA, the standards are nowhere near as tough as in Europe, and the incinerators are not even designed for this stuff. Oliver Milman writes in the Guardian about one incinerator in Chester, Pennsylvania, that burns recycling from as far away as New York City and North Carolina.

“This is a real moment of reckoning for the US because of a lot of these incinerators are aging, on their last legs, without the latest pollution controls,” said Claire Arkin, campaign associate at Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “You may think burning plastic means ‘poof, it’s gone’ but it puts some very nasty pollution into the air for communities that are already dealing with high rates of asthma and cancers.”

Covanta, the company that operates the plant, says that the scrubbers and bag rooms bring levels of pollution below government standards (which are too lax to begin with, especially for existing facilities) and that it is better than shipping to a landfill.

“In terms of greenhouse gases, it’s better sending recyclables to an energy recovery facility because of the methane that comes from a landfill,” said Paul Gilman, Covanta’s chief sustainability officer. “Fingers crossed Philadelphia can get their recycling program going again because these facilities aren’t designed for recyclables, they are designed for solid waste.”

This is not entirely true. Plastics do not rot in landfills and emit methane. When they are burned, they emit more CO2 per kWh generated than coal. These tired old plants pump out dioxins and nitrogen oxides and it all lands on the poor people living in the community. The CO2 goes further afield. The only thing dumber than burning single-use plastics is making them in the first place. Everybody knows this. Milman concludes:

Covanta and its critics agree that the whole recycling system in the US will need to be overhauled to avoid further environmental damage. Just 9% of plastic is recycled in the US, with campaigns to push up recycling rates obscuring broader concerns about the environmental impact of mass consumption, whether derived from recycled materials or not.

The only good that comes out of this is that people may start realizing that, after they drink from that water bottle, they are going to be breathing it – that, to paraphrase Marshall Berman, all that is solid waste melts into air. Perhaps they will think twice before buying it.