Does Burning Plastic Cause Climate Change?

The process of burning plastic is touted as a way to both generate electricity and get rid of plastic pollution. While it does kill two birds with one stone, the practice has seriously harmful side effects that far outweigh the benefits. Plastic incineration is responsible for:

  • Contributing to climate change
  • Releasing toxic gasses and chemicals
  • Perpetuating the cycle of plastic production

In this article, we’re diving deep into the consequences of plastic incineration.

Why Burn Plastic?

Burning plastic is a way to produce energy while eliminating plastic waste. In places like Europe, where landfill space is limited, it’s a valuable tool to save space and produce energy. Proponents of plastic incineration claim that it’s safe for the environment as long as emissions are controlled. 

Plastic is made from oil and natural gas, so it contains the same hydrocarbons found in fossil fuels. It packs a ton of energy and burns hot enough to drive steam turbines when incinerated. 

Burning Plastic and Climate Change

While burning plastic does have some benefits, they are far outweighed by the negatives. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, meaning it’s loaded with carbon. This is released as CO2 and methane when burned, which contribute to climate change. Annually, over 5 million metric tons of carbon are emitted by plastic incineration plants in the US.

Plastic incineration does nothing to stop the cycle of plastic production. The practice sends a signal that because there is a way to get rid of plastic pollution, then it’s ok to consume more plastic. This perpetuates the extraction and refining of fossil fuels for plastic production, which releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The process of manufacturing plastic from fossil fuels is the most carbon-heavy part of the plastic lifecycle. In 2015, about 200 million metric tons of carbon were emitted by ethylene plants across the world. 

Hazardous Chemicals

Burning plastic doesn’t just release fossil fuels; it also emits a slew of harmful byproducts, such as:

  • Dioxins
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Hydrochloric acid
  • Furans
  • Heavy metals

While incineration plants in developed countries have scrubbers that remove these harmful chemicals, this isn’t the case in developing countries. These plants are often in poverty-stricken areas or communities of color, putting the most vulnerable people at risk and contributing to environmental injustices. Workers and staff are also placed in harm’s way, as they’re constantly exposed to these toxic fumes.

Burning Plastic vs. Other Methods of Waste Management

Burning plastic is offered as an alternative to using landfills and as a way to prevent plastic from ending up in the ocean. But considering the environmental effects of incineration, it is far better to bury plastic than to burn it. While landfills do take up space and release greenhouse gasses, it pales in comparison to the carbon and toxic chemicals released from incineration. 

Recycling is a much better way to manage plastic waste. It reduces the need to extract more fossil fuels and manufacture ethylene, which is a carbon-intense process. Recycled plastic releases over 50% fewer greenhouse gasses over its lifetime compared to virgin plastic. Still, only 9% of the plastic in the US is recycled.

Conclusion

Plastic incineration does more harm than good. There are more environmentally-friendly ways to generate electricity. And while it keeps plastic waste from going into landfills or ending up in the ocean, the chemicals released into the atmosphere do just as much damage as ocean pollution. The process of incinerating plastic releases millions of tons of carbon every year, contributing to climate change. It also perpetuates the cycle of plastic production, which starts with fossil fuel extraction and ends with a product that will most likely be tossed aside after one use. 

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