by Aris Roussinos
Thursday, 17
September 2020
Spotted
11:45

Don’t recycle plastic. Burn it.

There's nothing to gain from dumping plastic rubbish halfway across the world
by Aris Roussinos
Why do we dump our plastic rubbish halfway across the world?

Every Thursday I dump on the street for collection the laboriously sorted, washed and specially-bagged plastic rubbish my family has assembled over the course of the previous week. And every week the same niggling, cynical voice tells me this is an entirely pointless activity. What is the likelihood, this voice whispers, that any of this mound of plastic, the mere sight of which fills me with a vague and troubling sense of guilt, ends up being melted down and repurposed instead of mouldering in a heap or washed into the sea either here or on the furthest edge of the world?

So it’s with a strange sense of satisfaction that I read this horrifying piece this week from NPR and another by Politico about the plastic recycling myth. All along, American consumers were purposely misled about the value of the time and effort they devoted to recycling their used plastic, urged to save the world by carrying out this weekly ritual of middle-class self-mortification, when in fact:

It’s not valuable, and it never has been. And what’s more, the makers of plastic — the nation’s largest oil and gas companies — have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.
- Laura Sullivan, NPR

The economics of recycling plastic simply don’t work, and the quality of the little recycled plastic produced from our ever-growing piles of refuse is so low as to make the entire ritual almost completely pointless. The whole thing was simply a way for the big oil companies who make the plastic in the first place to shift responsibility, and guilt, onto us, making us feel that our token efforts were somehow helping solve the problem they refuse to stop making. Instead of producing less new plastic, they tricked us into consuming ever more of the stuff, by lying about recycling it.

And this isn’t just an American issue. A Greenpeace investigation two years ago found plastic waste, still wrapped in the recycling bags of British councils, heaped up in vast piles in open-air dumps in the Malaysian forest. The recycling scam means we transport our plastic waste to the other end of the world — itself an immensely pointless and wasteful use of fossil fuels — to find its way into rivers and then the open sea where they will degrade and poison the natural world for centuries to come. 

So what should we do instead? Obviously, the government should ban the production of single-use plastics immediately, but until then, counterintuitively, I propose we just burn it. The arguments against burning plastic are that — in an ideal world — recycling’s a better solution, but now we’re fully aware of what actually happens to it all, that no longer stands. 

Sure, it’s less efficient than other means of power generation, but that’s looking at the problem the wrong way: the energy derived from burning plastic would just be a bonus, the real purpose would just be to get rid of it all. 

Visceral horror at plastic waste and at the growing absorption of tiny particles of degraded plastics by every living thing on earth — including us — is a rare subject of cross-party consensus, and a political push to actually solve the problem once and for all would surely be rewarded by voters. Let’s stop sorting, washing and dumping our plastic crap and just burn the lot — and make Big Oil pay for it.

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Derek M
Derek M
2 years ago

“Obviously, the government should ban the production of single-use plastics immediately” It’s not obvious at all

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago
Reply to  Derek M

Does a condom count as a single-use plastic?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Not in the CCP.

Jordan Flower
Jordan Flower
2 years ago

you lost me at “the government should…”

Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
2 years ago
Reply to  Jordan Flower

He means they should legislate….

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago

I don’t know about the USofA but in the UK some of our plastic
waste is used for making rope and now not just the cheap
“trucklashing stuff” but the more expensive branded type.
Next year all the running rigging on my yacht, including the
safety items, will be Marlow Ropes. I hope it’s as good as the
blurbs say cos I’m off next year (Azores first stop.)

jason.livermore
jason.livermore
2 years ago

I wouldn’t be opposed to just burying plastic with the rest of our trash that goes to the landfill. Just put it back into the ground from whence it came. I used to be alarmed at the display I saw in grade school about how long plastics take to break down — thousands of years? But that low reactivity just shows how little of a problem it will be — nothing toxic to leak out, it all just stays put for a long time.

There is a tradeoff for everything, a cost and benefit. We as consumers love convenience, and the producers of plastics are responding to that. I don’t think there is some Big Oil conspiracy to push stuff on us that we don’t really want.

Andy
Andy
2 years ago

Burning plastic in incineration is the 3rd worst option after landfill and oceanfill. It has been proven that incineration gives off toxins and despite claims to the contrary, the operators very rarely meet their emissions targets, damaging local environments and causing health issues. Any plastic that can be recycled should be, that which is at end of life usage should be processed through pyrolysis which will generate power like incineration and also provide valuable commodities such as oil, and solid carbons that can be reused in a circular economy.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
2 years ago
Reply to  Andy

But plastic is only a part of the vast quantities of garbage produced by all of us, whether individuals or private or public sectors. Currently, most of what isn’t incinerated goes to landfill which, as you say, is the worst possible way to dispose of it. I live in an area where local authorities have been incinerating for years in an energy from waste plant, having closed the llocal andfill sites. As everywhere, it was initially opposed by a vocal minority but is now accepted as the only currently viable solution. Better third worst than absolute worst.

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
2 years ago
Reply to  Ralph Windsor

What’s wrong with landfills?

Put liners, of course, to prevent leaching into soil.

Fill them up and, once full, cap them and turn them into places for outdoor activities (parks, golf courses, athletic fields, etc.). My understanding is that such uses are better than building on them because of the possibility of soil settling over time.

Steve Craddock
Steve Craddock
2 years ago

Don’t burn as that makes more pollution. Just chop it up into smallish pieces and poke it back down the empty oil wells.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

A lot of plastic is completely unnecessary e.g. (my pet hate) shower gel, water and squash bottles, milk containers etc etc.

We need ro go back to old-fashioned ways, including food packaging and hygiene.

kellygrady1962
kellygrady1962
2 years ago

I agree completely. Burn It! My home town of Morganton N. C. removed the last recycling center for city residents and my weekly trash has increased three times. The fat cats that profit from the plastic industry and the U S government won’t take a moral stand on the issue and I am tired of being on a save the planet mission for fools. Yes burning plastic as ignorant as it may be is a much better method of disposal

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
2 years ago

“Obviously, the government should ban the production of single-use plastics immediately”

No, that’s not at all “obvious”. Roussinos doesn’t even present arguments in favor of his petty authoritarianism.

Felix Leiter
Felix Leiter
2 years ago

Agreed – but don’t stop at plastic. We should incinerate all rubbish that can’t be recycled.

In the UK, with land at such a premium, filling the ground with detritus and polluting groundwater in the process is the most counter-intellectual thing imaginable.

Kelly Mitchell
Kelly Mitchell
2 years ago

Yep – let’s blame Big Oil for our own choices. If you don’t like plastic, then DONT f*****g BUY IT! It takes both sides – producer and consumer – to make the dance work.
If you don’t buy things in plastic, then evil Big Oil won’t make a profit and will quit making it.

Tony
Tony
2 years ago

Doesn’t burning plastic give off clouds of toxic materials?

Rosso Grimaldi
Rosso Grimaldi
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony

If you do it in your back yard, yes, most likely! My impression is that purpose-built facilities control for dioxins and such, either by burning the plastics at temperatures so high that the organic gases burn up too, or by heating the plastics in oxygen-poor environments so those combustion byproducts can’t form. One of the author’s links was especially informative as far as the technical side: https://www.nationalgeograp

Now, one imagines there’s a reason Big Oil’s invested in all this: once those waste-to-energy plants are around and operational, it’s harder to build a case for less plastic production. Fewer grotesque images of waste to motivate public pressure, a sense that the waste stream “just disappears,” expensive physical investments that local politicians will be motivated to keep utilized…

D T
D T
2 years ago

Relax, the solution is at hand. Check out Recycling Technologies
https://recyclingtechnologi
First machine due to be up and running next year.

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
2 years ago

Yes, governments should do far more to limit the use if single use plastics. If we wait for plastic producers to take the initiative we will wait a long time. There are already viable alternatives to plastic that are in production and others are being developed.

Peter KE
Peter KE
2 years ago

Not well researched. The NRP writer is wrong, recycling is possible including single use material. The public sector and civil service just needs to ensure proper contracts and controls are paid for and managed correctly in whatever path is chosen be it recycling or incineration or landfill. Unfortunately this is another story of poor management and pass the problem by the government.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter KE

The word “just” in your third sentence is doing so much work, it could be put to use on the mountains of plastic in the developing world straight away! Where do either the NPR article or this one claim that recycling is not “possible”?

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

The problem with using cats as Philosophy teachers is, of course that the primary sources are even less reliable than for the Pre-Socratics. Like them the student of such philosophy has to go second or third hand from the primary source. A few years back now I was staying in a cottage by the sea in the far west of County Mayo in Ireland. There were two cats nearby, totally identical and I never saw them more that a metre or so apart from each other; I imagine they were from the same litter.

They were, compared to the average domestic p***y, totally active; they needed to be as their whole life was a search for food; insects, little creatures and in the long West Irish evenings they would go down to the rockpools for food. They had sleek bodies, all bone and sinew and shiny fur

To me this was the life a cat should have even though, in reality, they would probably only live 2 or 3 winters. These cats did not have the chance of the sort of Epicurean world view that John Grey seems to attach to his cat. For me the average domestic p***y cat, particularly those kept indoors, are probably clinically depressed; which is how I envisage the Epicurean life-style.

bigdaddy69_77
bigdaddy69_77
2 years ago

I LOVE the idea of recycling. I’ve been an avid lifelong recycler. I’ve organized recycling programs at institutions where I’ve worked. I gathered deposit bottles and cans and threw parties at my dorm in college with the proceeds. I firmly embrace “reduce, reuse, recycle” daily.
But the oceans full of plastic are heartbreaking. Bottled water is a SCOURGE!! It’s less pure than what comes out of the tap and costs $1-$14 per gallon, versus less than a penny from the tap.

There seem to be some great new technologies for converting plastics back into combustible liquid fuel. Unfortunately it seems that Waste Management has commandeered the technology and will tragically never allow it to be made available to the public. But that option requires sorting, an onerous task.
Better to just incinerate it all, I agree, but do it in Plasma Reactors. Plasma burns so hot that the only byproduct is potable water and an inert slag that could be used in road building. They’re expensive but what’s it worth to save the planet?

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
2 years ago
Reply to  bigdaddy69_77

“But the oceans full of plastic are heartbreaking.”

The evidence is that very little of that plastic comes from North America or Western Europe, because they have in place systems of waste collection and disposal using landfills or incineration.

Quoting from https://www.city-journal.or

“After painstakingly analyzing debris in the north central Pacific Ocean, where converging currents create the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a team of scientists from four continents reported in 2018 that more than half the plastic came from fishing boats”mostly discarded nets and other gear.”

and

“Some plastic discarded on land does end up in the ocean, but very little of it comes from consumers in the United States or Europe. Most of the labels on the plastic packaging analyzed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch came from Asia, the greatest source of what researchers call “mismanaged waste.” Of the plastic carried into oceans by rivers, a 2017 study in Nature Communications estimated, 86 percent comes from Asia and virtually all the rest from Africa and South America. Developing countries don’t yet have good systems for collecting and processing waste, so some of it is simply dumped into or near rivers, and these countries’ primitive processing facilities let plastic leak into waterways.”

stuuey
stuuey
2 years ago

If you make the buyer responsible for the disposal cost this would mean we would effectively pay a tax or premium on packaging and single use plastics…very soon we would devise more effective methods…which would reduce consumption…
Most plastics can be recycled / pelatised locally at low cost and the raw material sold at a small profit for other uses ..the disposal premium would increase the cost of the plastic and profit from recycling…

Steve Surname
Steve Surname
2 years ago

Learn from Columbus Ohio their trash burning plant which cost $1 billion was closed down because of burning so much plastic, created dioxin.

carlojonestreeman
carlojonestreeman
2 years ago

The controlled burning of plastics gives off the hydrocarbons and other chemicals as smoke..its call pyrolysis and should be used to molecularly break down the plastic.. it can make new chemicals… i advocated this for years but cant get the help to bring it to market.
Help.🥴

steelrosie59
steelrosie59
2 years ago

While I agree with most of what you say, to state that big oil companys are the ones that make the plastic in the first place is absurd. Big oil companys produce oil.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
2 years ago

😊🏵️🌸🌼🐱

I’ve had the privilage of looking after two rescue cats, both of whom were saved from death and have since been rehomed to a more stable environment. The first one, in his timidity, was forever wanting me to go out for walks with him in order to have the confidence to explore the local neighbourhood. The second was forever having me run the stairs in our block of flats to be let in and then within 10 minutes having me run down the stairs to let her out again. I was easily the servant in both relationships but they did reward me in other ways.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
2 years ago

Bravo. I get the feeling that this issue will soon prove to be more important than climate change, and make the dangers of the Corona virus seem trivial.

claire.orush123
claire.orush123
2 years ago

Burning plastic has proven to release carcinogens and other harmful toxins. Perhaps a type of plastic could be formulated that isn’t so toxic. Then we could burn it, but there would have to be some sort of public facility to do so.

wow.the.moth
wow.the.moth
2 years ago

Not a very convincing case for burning it. You present a false dichotomy, brush over the alternative that you don’t like and then conclude that burning is the only option.

Don’t forget how many millions of tonnes are produced a year – burning that would only add to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere when we are overdue for the need to cap and reduce emissions.

By treating it as a fuel source, you create a market for it, which will only reduce the need to solve the problem, meaning more plastics will be made and thus burnt.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever smelt plastics burning, but I have. It doesn’t burn “clean” and apart from the greenhouse gases, it also produces a range of other chemical compounds that will leech into environments and could be more damaging than microplastics.

I agree that there needs to be a ban. I also believe that single use plastic producers need to pay for a solution. However, I believe they need to pay a figure weighted to their overall historic production to governments which is then used to fund independent (from government and industry) R&D into solutions to manage this issue.

I don’t believe we have a suitable option at this stage, but that doesn’t mean one can’t be found.

wow.the.moth
wow.the.moth
2 years ago

Not a very convincing case for burning it. You present a false dichotomy, brush over the alternative that you don’t like and then conclude that burning is the only option.

Don’t forget how many millions of tonnes are produced a year – burning that would only add to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere when we are overdue for the need to cap and reduce emissions.

By treating it as a fuel source, you create a market for it, which will only reduce the need to solve the problem, meaning more plastics will be made and thus burnt.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever smelt plastics burning, but I have. It doesn’t burn “clean” and apart from the greenhouse gases, it also produces a range of other chemical compounds that will leech into environments and could be more damaging than microplastics.

I agree that there needs to be a ban. I also believe that single use plastic producers need to pay for a solution. However, I believe they need to pay a figure weighted to their overall historic production to governments which is then used to fund independent (from government and industry) R&D into solutions to manage this issue.

I don’t believe we have a suitable option at this stage, but that doesn’t mean we need to settle for a bad option

malcolmwhitmore18
malcolmwhitmore18
2 years ago

Incineration is not the answer to our plastic problem because it produces CO2 to make our Climate Change disaster even worse as well as producing toxic gases into the atmosphere.
The simple answer is to bury it in a controlled manner at locations where the extra land can be benefit. This has been done very effectively in New York where a desirable nature reserve has been created on top of plastic refuse discarded by New Yorkers over the years.
In this way the carbon content of the plastic is returned back to ground from which we pumped the oil to make it saving us from having to find ways of extracting the CO2 from the atmosphere to combat climate change..