Burning the evidence of our single-use plastic overconsumption may sound tempting, but it surely embodies the recklessness and short-sightedness that brought us to this precipice in the first place. America venerates itself as a bountiful land stretching from sea to shining sea. But the ocean shimmer these days is less about wind and waves than about floating islands of Polypropylene. And the bounty? More like a bleak reality – dumping so much plastic waste in our oceans that Big Business now sees their visible destruction as a helpful argument in favor of incinerating plastic for energy.
As if the trash gyres weren’t bad enough, now we’ve stumbled into an era where incinerating ocean-bound waste and releasing more greenhouse gases masquerades as ocean protection. A new plateau has been achieved with these twin eco-nightmares; the onslaught of disposable plastic and the choking effect of our CO2 emissions are colliding in a new industrial exultation: burning plastic waste. It’s simply unconscionable that monied interests consort with ecologists to push for the mass incineration of plastic waste under the guise of restoring ocean health, as though the oceans – and humanity ‒ are divorced from what happens in the atmosphere.
Witness the Ocean Recovery Alliance, a not-for-profit with a name calibrated to evoke images of tireless marine advocates and environmental defenders. But the word ‘recovery’ is misplaced, to be sure. The recovery they espouse is the retrieval of “ocean-bound” plastic for incineration. Buried in its Web site, past familiar slogans for recycling and reduced plastic use, is its signature Plastic-to-Fuel (PTF) plan ‒ a long-sought framework undertaken with the American Chemistry Council. It’s a plan that seeks to solve one problem by creating another – limitless greenhouse gas emissions. This is just one scheme, but many others are represented by it.
How did we overlook this ominous collision? With much prompting from industry, and perhaps for simplicity’s sake, we chose to characterize the two crises as singular dangers ‒ single-use plastic as an over-consumption, disposal, and recycling issue versus the burning of fossil fuels as a climate problem. Plastic manufacturers exploited this division for decades, acting like there was no connection between issues they knew intersected. But disposable plastic is made from fossil fuel 99% of the time – fracking has driven its falling cost and soaring production. The connection was obvious. Plus, we use additional supplies to power the factories that make it, fuel the trucks that haul it, and run the equipment that dumps it. Plastic is central to the climate change calamity, too.
When you hold a piece of disposable plastic, you’re essentially holding methane. Burning it will release the hydrocarbons stored inside along with the ancillary chemicals used to lock it into an impermeable solid with a thousand-year lifespan. Incinerators can run on plastic because they’re just another form of methane.
With society’s endless stream of plastic waste creating a very low-cost fuel, it’s a siren call to profiteers with ambitions to wrap the planet with incinerators. Municipalities have incinerated waste for years to address space constraints. The evolution of incineration into an energy source has escalated the issue to a new level of concern. It would support the expansive use of combustion for profit, rather than the common purpose today as a method of waste management.
Investors will have little incentive to site plants in wealthy nations with strict health regulations. We can expect these stations to go into developing nations eager for new revenues ‒ and energy ‒ in exchange for lax oversight. Plastic incineration releases both dioxins and heavy metals, both of which are highly carcinogenic and rely on expensive capture technology to protect us from dangerous toxins. This blatant violation of environmental justice may be the most insidious yet – wealthy nations create the waste, then pay to burn it elsewhere while profiting from the dirty energy.
An industry built around plentiful, cheap plastic fuel would have every incentive to encourage plastic consumption and derail efforts to cut its use. By its very existence, this industry signals to consumers that continued use is okay because the waste has a second life as a fuel source, despite there being no way to ensure it would ever be properly collected, let alone carefully incinerated. It also blocks us from our vital objective of becoming net-carbon neutral by 2050. Incinerated plastic has a similar carbon footprint to coal when measuring CO2 per kilowatt-hour generated – about as dirty as it gets.
How much of an energy harvest are we talking about? Consider some typical disposable items you barely notice during your week. Those lightweight plastic shopping sacks are made from an average of 5.5 grams of High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE). The energy “stored” in 14 of them is equivalent to what’s used to drive a car one mile. America tosses out 100 billion of them annually so that equates to more than 7 billion miles of driving – about 280 million gallons of gas, or about 14.7M barrels of oil. Multiply that by 10 for the global tally.
Those ubiquitous plastic clamshells used to hold a meal contain around 50 grams of polypropylene (PP). You only have to use 1.5 of them to equal 1 car-mile. And how about a 16.9 oz. bottle of soda or water? That’s about 13.4 grams of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Toss out 6 of those and you’ve discarded a car mile. So, what about a person who gets daily takeout for lunch and orders a sandwich or salad packed in a clamshell with a soda, both of which tuck into a plastic sack? After a year they’ve used 1,375 grams of HDPE, 12,750 grams of PP, and 3,350 grams of PET, equal to the energy used to drive a car for 228 miles – about 10 gallons of gas for a typical American model. And that’s just lunch for one person.
Humanity is quite literally awash in its waste. Single-use plastic is now almost half of all annual production, and the increases point ever-upward. Our oceans fill with about 10-11 million tons of it every year, and that figure will be on the rise as well. There’s no simple solution but the right answer is to stop incinerating our most insidious form of solid waste and avoid adding billions of tons more CO2 to compound our mistakes.