Plastic waste dumping site at Thilafushi

Smart plastic incineration posited as solution to global recycling crisis

Image credit: Dreamstime

With China refusing to receive plastic waste from developed countries, many people are agonising over possible alternative solutions. One expert is arguing in favour of ramping up efficient plastic incineration. We asked him how smart incineration for low-grade plastic works, the benefits and risks and what the environmental implications might be.

After China announced its decision to the World Trade Organisation in 2017 to impose a ban on importing certain kinds of solid wastes - including most plastics - other national economies have racked their brains to find viable recycling solutions. 

Indonesia and the Philippines have since followed China's lead in refusing to accept foreign recycling and were joined recently by Cambodia, which decided in July to send plastic waste back to the US and Canada.

One researcher in the Netherlands argues against the current recycling waste model that rich countries have largely adopted. Raymond Gradus, professor at Vrije Universiteit  Amsterdam, argues that incineration of low-grade plastic, if done appropriately, is not harmful and exhibits a viable economic and environmental solution to the current plastic disposition crisis. 

Gradus claims that he has the figures to back his theory up. As a researcher, he conducted an analysis of waste treatment options and says he thinks that "not every country should take plastic". Some countries, he says, have low standards and that would constitute a major problem in relying on their recycling and incineration efforts - which in some instances can increase the chance that plastic ends up in the environment and the ocean.

In Gradus's view, rich countries on the export end should increasingly consider and invest in efficient plastic incineration. 

'Smart incineration’ of plastic waste, such as done largely in developed countries including the UK, Sweden and the Netherland, would bear a lower burden in terms of its CO2 emissions and would prevent dirty incineration (burning plastic in the open air) that may take place in developing countries. 

"You see now a lot of western low-grade plastic ending up in Asia, or in Europe such as Turkey and Egypt", he says.

Gradus’s analysis of cost-effectiveness for low-grade plastic incineration, where he and his colleagues compared the recycling of the plastic waste with incineration, potentially align with lower costs.

“Home [plastic] separation is expensive. You need a lot of extra trucks. You also need infrastructure in place to collect plastic from the curbside. Or they go to plastic banks or 'bring' locations. You have to invest in new infrastructure". 

For plastic waste, the transport costs amount to €4 per tonne and the collection costs are calculated at around €56 per tonne, totalling €60 per tonne overall. For plastic waste recycling, the collection and transport costs in the case of the Netherlands is as high as €408 per tonne - 580 per cent higher than for waste incineration. 

The idea of incineration is not new and is pervasive to many countries in Europe. Today with a fleet of nearly 500 incinerators, around 42 per cent of plastic waste in Europe is being incinerated, according to 2016 figures. China is warming to the idea, too. It is in the process of building or planning a further 100 new incinerators on the mainland, according to the Wuhu Ecology Center in China's Anhui province. However, other countries appear to have little appetite for the idea of incineration.

At the forefront is the US, which only recently started to boost efforts around recycling. The US refused to sign a treaty in May to give nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic waste. Incineration in the US only accounts for 12.5 per cent of municipal solid waste and only one new US incinerator has been constructed since 1997. 

The amount of CO2 reduction realised by Dutch plastic waste recycling is costly compared to viable alternatives, e.g. technologies including wind, solar and carbon capture and storage. 

The carbon emission argument is the trump card, according to Gradus's suggestion. Incineration and industry recycling could be an appealing option when it is considered that it takes an average household sixty years to compensate for the CO2 emissions of a single airplane trip from Amsterdam to Los Angeles, under the assumption that an average Dutch household would separate around 15kg of plastic waste, saving 26kg of CO2 per annum.

Adding to this is evidence that if plastic waste is not being separated at home, but by the industry, it is cheaper. “You can take good quality plastic out more easily and separate bad quality of plastic, such as polluted films for example. Here, it would be better to be adequately incinerated and create a lot of energy that can, for example, heat buildings”, Gradus explains. 

Of course, there remains work to be done to prepare rich countries for the challenge of incineration, he says. The quality of incinerators found in some places in southern Europe, for instance, would not live up to Gradus's definition of smart incineration. This disparity would need to be addressed first.

Incineration is highly controversial in many countries. Recent attempts to build new incinerators have led to local opposition, including in China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, South Africa, Ethiopia, Spain, UK, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, according to a report published by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

The authors of the report also argue that extensive evidence already exists on the harmful short and long-term effects of waste incineration’s emissions and by-products, stating that "waste incineration industries claim that incineration using highly advanced emission control technologies provides clean energy that reduces climate impacts and toxicity".

Nonetheless, the risk of harmful substances reaching the air may not be completely eliminated by engineers. In some countries, newer incinerators would apply air pollution control technologies, including fabric filters, electrostatic precipitators and scrubbers, the CIEL authors argue. However, these filters may not prevent all hazardous emissions, such as ultra-fine particles - unregulated and particularly harmful to health - from escaping into the air.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles