The pros–and cons–of burning plastic


Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 12th, 2019

The fact that plastics are bad for the environment is no surprise; the material generally does not biodegrade and the resulting microplastics are extremely harmful, especially to deep sea life.

The prevalence of plastics in our ecosystem demands a solution; recycling programs exist in most nations, but at most, only about 30% of recyclable plastics actually make it to recycling centers. In an effort to find alternative uses for plastic, some places, the EU included, choose to burn portions of plastic waste to generate electricity.

Unfortunately, despite the advantages of using waste to fuel power grids, burning plastic carries with it some significant risks.

Plastics can be made from a variety of materials, including plant cellulose and salt. Most, however, are byproducts of the coal and oil industry. Though this makes plastic waste a very good source of fuel, the most common method of burning waste can emit low levels of pollutants. Newer methods that heat plastic in the absence of oxygen stand a better chance of producing lower levels of these pollutants.

Waste-to-energy plants often have trouble finding footing, partly because few people want to live by them. But the EU is not planning on shutting down their waste-energy plants any time soon, and with some alterations, plastic may be a dominating new form of fuel.


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