Plastic has found its way into every aspect of our lives and shows no signs of slowing down.
In the United States alone, “plastic waste generation is projected to grow to 142 million metric tons by 2060.”
Humanity is facing a plastic pollution crisis and must find a way to reduce plastic production and usage.
Meanwhile, which is the better option for plastic disposal?
Let’s explore the plastic problem further and determine whether burning plastic or sending it to a landfill is the better option.
The Plastic Problem
It is no secret that plastic pollution is a crisis facing the modern world.
This is especially true because, unlike other types of waste, plastics aren’t easy to recycle, particularly when you consider flexible plastic like films or bags as they’re not easy to gather and sort.
Moreover, some plastics contain additives that prove difficult to recycle.
According to Environmental Defense, “The equivalent of at least one dump truck full of plastic waste is already dumped into the world’s oceans every minute.”
And if something isn’t done to solve the plastic problem, they estimate “nearly five times more plastic” will be produced annually by 2050.
The plastics industry and some governments like to refer to plastic burning as ‘advanced recycling,’ touting it as a miracle cure to plastic pollution.
Currently, more popular in Europe than in the United States due to their geographical limitations, plastic incineration plants heat and produce energy for local households and businesses.
But at what cost?
To some, burning plastic is among the things that should never be done, whether it is at home in your backyard or on a large scale like an incineration plant.
Plastic incineration plants are considered bad for the environment and the health of all living things since burning plastic doesn’t get rid of it. It simply turns it into something just as toxic, if not more so.
The Environmental Defense estimates that for every ton of dense plastic burned, more than two tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
According to Oceana, not only does burning plastic release “climate change-accelerating gasses,” but the smoke also includes “carcinogens like lead, mercury, dioxins, and furans, fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (BCBs) and brominated polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS).”
Incineration plants claim to have systems in place to capture harmful toxins, preventing them from being released into the atmosphere. However, it is argued that some toxins may get through the filters, even in state-of-the-art plants.
Furthermore, it is estimated that after burning plastic, as much as 30% is left behind as solid ash.
This means that the resulting ash and wastewater, which contain many of the same pollutants, are sent to landfills or sewers where they can potentially leak, contaminating local communities and the environment.
Building a plastic-burning facility is a costly endeavor. It is estimated that a waste-to-energy plant needs to burn plastic for approximately 30 years to pay for itself.
Local communities and governments often have to keep the facilities running at capacity. Additionally, incineration facilities cannot be switched on and off easily, so they must operate continuously.
Unsurprisingly, locations with the highest plastic and waste incineration rates also have the lowest recycling rates since recyclables and compostables must go to ‘feed’ the incineration plants.
Furthermore, incineration plants don’t solve the plastic problem, which is to reduce plastic production. Instead, they perpetuate the need for plastic production so the ‘waste-to-energy’ plants can continue to operate and pay for themselves.
Moreover, since plastic is made from oil and gas, burning plastic is indeed like burning fossil fuels.
Energy produced by incineration plants is considered to be dirtier than burning coal due to the many pollutants released.
According to Greenpeace, in the United Kingdom (UK), incinerator plants are three times more likely to be built in low socio-economic neighborhoods.
For example, an incineration plant was expanded in the Edmonton ‘EcoPark’ in England, an area where the community is 65% people of color, despite objections from the residents.
In contrast, the Cambridgeshire County Council rejected an incinerator in their community “because it wasn’t in keeping with the listed and historic buildings in the area.”
Opposers to plastic incinerators accuse the plastics industry and local governments of ‘greenwashing’ plastic burning and racism because they expose underprivileged communities to harmful pollutants.
Sending Plastic to a Landfill
According to Statista, in 2021, the United States generated an estimated 40 million tons of municipal plastic waste. Of that, at least 85% was sent to landfills.
Greenhouse Gas Production
While household waste does create greenhouse gas emissions, much of it is captured as landfill gas.
However, no system is perfect, and older landfills may contribute to global warming by releasing harmful gases, such as methane.
Yet, plastics are extremely stable, taking up to 1,000 years to degrade. Hence the difficulty in recycling.
Therefore, because plastics don’t break down easily when buried in a landfill, they do not emit greenhouse gases.
Some argue that burying plastic waste is an inexpensive way to capture and store carbon. Hence, it prevents GHG from being released into the atmosphere.
Although plastics do not ‘degrade’ in a landfill, they can be broken into smaller and smaller particles, known as microplastics (MP), through pressure and compaction.
Microplastics are smaller than 5 millimeters, which can be further broken down into nanoparticles, less than 0.1 micrometers.
Microplastics can have long-term negative effects on soils, sediments, freshwater, oceans, and living things, as additives, like phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA), can leach out of them.
Furthermore, nanoparticles can cause inflammation as they cross cellular barriers and membranes, like the blood-brain barrier and the placenta.
Microplastics can release harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and absorb pollutants, which can be carried over long distances due to their small size.
Carefully Designed Ecological Systems
Modern-day landfills are more than just a hole in the ground where waste is indiscriminately dumped.
They are carefully designed ecological systems designed to prevent any exchange with the surrounding environment.
Landfills are built with a primary and secondary liner at the bottom. These liners are “made of clay, a synthetic material, or both.” These liners prevent anything from leaching into the groundwater. Some even have leak monitors in place.
Landfills also have pipes, stones, and other elements that allow for the ventilation of gasses, such as methane, released by the waste to prevent potential explosions.
Some landfills have methods in place to capture these gasses instead of releasing them into the atmosphere, which they sell for energy and fuel.
Although modern landfills are designed to capture and recycle leachate to avoid leakage of potentially harmful waste into the environment, older landfills have no controls in place.
Burning Plastic or Sending it to a Landfill – Which is Better?
There is no easy answer or perfect solution to the plastic disposal debate.
Ideally, plastic production and use must be reduced to combat the plastic pollution crisis.
Reduce, reuse, and recycle is the next best solution. Recycling and composting, reusing items repeatedly to avoid purchasing plastic products when possible, opting out of single-use plastic, and scaling down packaging would be a great start.
However, if one chooses between burning plastic or sending it to a landfill, sending plastic waste to a landfill is the lesser of the two evils.
As Elena Polisano, an Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace UK, told BBC News, “When we get to the stage of deciding whether to burn or bury waste, we have already failed, failed some more, and then failed again. However, containing that failure is safer than spreading it through the atmosphere through toxic gases.”
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