Plastic is possibly the most pervasive waste product that has existed on the planet. With over three hundred million tons of plastic being produced yearly, it is an undeniably large part of our everyday lives.
Despite plastic being initially assumed to be inert and harmless, many years of plastic disposal has led to diverse environmental problems, including contamination of marine and terrestrial food chains. We are becoming more and more aware that our existing systems are failing us and the planet when it comes to disposing of plastic waste. Could burning plastic be the answer?
In the most literal sense, plastic can be burned to get rid of it. However, disposing of plastic by burning has its own set of ill-effects on human health and the environment. Unfortunately, burning plastic is just trading one problematic waste management method for another.
Is Burning Plastic Bad for the Environment?
On the face of it, most people think that burning plastic is better than landfilling since it uses less space and permanently gets rid of the waste, but truth be told, they lack insight into the magnitude of the impacts of this practice on the environment.
Dioxins are some of the most dangerous chemicals and are by-products formed during the combustion of chlorine-containing products. Burning plastics produces enormous amounts of dioxins and other highly toxic pollutants persistent in the food chain. Once in the air, they tend to adhere to the waxy surface of leaves, eventually making their way into the food cycle.
Burning plastic in the open releases black carbon, better known as soot, that pollutes the atmosphere, ultimately contributing to climate change. Soot is far-reaching, and the odors can be bothersome.
Also, the gases released during this process can corrode metal sidings and damage paint on buildings.
Contaminating Soil and Marine Ecosystems
Fragments from burning plastic become litter, contaminating the soil and groundwater, and can get into the human food chain through livestock and crops.
Moreover, as the unburned portions of plastic disintegrate, animals may eat them and get sick. Larger pieces of plastic are potential breeding grounds for diseases, for example when they fill with stagnated water, providing a habitat for mosquitos.
Ash wastes from burnt plastics contain potassium, phosphorous, and trace amounts of micro-nutrients, such as copper, zinc, and iron, all of which can disrupt the fragile ecosystems of water bodies. For instance, phosphorus is a powerful stimulant for an algae bloom. Too many algae can cause the formation of scum, low oxygen levels, and foul odors in waterways.
Is it Illegal to Burn Plastic?
In general, it is illegal to burn plastics around the world. Some governments turn a blind eye to such illegal practices. For instance, the Indonesian government snubbed an international study that discovered high levels of dioxins in a village, where plastic is burned to fuel tofu production.
Another example is Romania. Despite prohibiting the open burning of waste, the law is widely flouted by ‘modern slaves,’ who burn trash for a living.
Experts estimate that 20% to 70% of all plastic items intended for recycling are discarded by recycling centers because they are unusable. This is either due to contamination or the fact that only a few of the plastics in our Plastic Number System can truly be recycled.
This means burning plastics will remain a vicious cycle because the local governments intended to enforce the law and ensure efficient working systems are sleeping on the job.
Can You Burn Plastic Safely?
Aside from the environmental impacts, no matter how plastic is burned some toxins are released directly into the air we breathe. This puts the person or people burning plastic directly in harms way. The degree of danger only changes based on the burning method used, but the danger remains present nonetheless.
Several low to middle-income countries have adopted the unregulated practice of openly burning plastics to eliminate this enduring waste, releasing toxic emissions into the atmosphere.
There are two common paths for burning plastics:
This is outdoor burning in an unconfined space, container, or pile. It may take place in a homemade burn box, an open pit, burn barrel, wood stove, or outdoor boiler. Backyard burning methods release toxic emissions directly into the atmosphere without being filtered or treated.
Uncontrolled, low-temperature combustion and smoldering conditions are typical of backyard trash fires. This practice releases pollutants such as dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and fine particulate matter into the air. These pollutants are also released at the ground level, finding their way into the soil and thus the plants we eat.
An incineration plant is a technical unit dedicated to the thermal treatment of wastes. Large-scale trash incinerators efficiently torch plastic garbage at very high temperatures. They are designed to minimize the conditions that promote the formation of harmful combustion by-products.
These incineration facilities have stringent pollution-control mechanisms that reduce dioxin emissions by primarily preventing their formation. However, just like any technology, incineration has its setbacks:
- Not Ozone-Friendly
Burning 1 ton of plastic emits close to 3 tons of carbon dioxide.
- Toxic Hazard
Incineration emits toxins, including cancer-causing endocrines, and heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, and lead.
- Higher Operating Costs
Incineration is more expensive than landfilling, and aging incinerators require significant funds for upgrades.
Advanced and Better Ways to Burn
One way of converting plastic waste into energy is through gasification. This technique melts plastics at extremely high temperatures in the near-absence of oxygen, preventing the formation of furans and dioxins. The process generates synthetic gas that is used to fire turbines.
Pyrolysis is currently the most attractive technology in which plastics are tattered and melted at much lower temperatures than gasification. The heat breaks down plastic polymers into smaller hydrocarbons that are refined into diesel fuel and other petrochemicals.
While these technologies seem cleaner, critics have raised some concerns:
- High costs and low returns:
The technologies are expensive and immature, and track major failures.
- Not climate-friendly:
Despite having mechanisms in place to minimize emissions, carbon dioxide is still released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.
- Toxic hazard:
They discharge pollutants in gaseous emissions and by-products, similar to waste incineration.
Plastics are made from fossil fuels, which means burning them is as unsustainable as burning any other fossil fuel. Moreover, the machines need to be fed with a steady flow of wastes to make them worthwhile, encouraging plastic consumption.
Whereas burning plastics seems like a quick fix, it isn’t the solution to plastic pollution.
A Ban on Plastics
Many single-use plastic items are mostly made of low-value materials that are economically impractical to collect and recycle. Since the majority of these items aren’t strong enough or sometimes even safe for reuse, the best solution is to remove single-use plastics from our daily lives. Plastic bags, plastic straws, and expanded polystyrene insulation (EPS) foam food containers are all examples.
It is heartening to see some developing countries make serious strides in the battle against plastic. Here are three examples worth emulating:
As of August 2017, Kenya instigated the world’s harshest plastic bag ban. Anyone found producing, using, or selling plastic bags faces a $38,000 fine and up to four years in jail.
In July 2017, Zimbabwe banned expanded polystyrene (EPS) used in the manufacture of food containers that takes up to a million years to decompose. Individuals caught violating this ban will be fined between $30 and $500.
Since 2008, the country altogether banned plastic bags. Anyone found carrying a plastic bag attracts a jail sentence and a fine of up to $61.