Plastics and chemicals

False Solutions: Incineration

The plastics (and hence oil industry) has of late championed incineration of plastic as a solution to the plastics problem.

“PTF (plastics to fuel) technologies should be recognized as complementary to recycling and an important part of a community’s integrated solid waste management.”

“Laws and regulations should identify PTF companies as producers of an alternative energy source. Rather than a form of disposal, this process should qualify as utilizing raw materials for a manufacturing process under existing state and local regulations.” (source

In effect the industry wants to legitimize plastic production and pollution by reinventing plastic waste as fuel stock for incinerators.

However incineration invariably produces a number of toxins including as hazardous ash and as air pollution. Incinerator ash management and disposal is a major environmental and human health burden for countries incinerating their waste and also for international waste trade and cross boundary shipments. There is no uniform management of hazardous incinerator fly ash globally.

Plastics in our waste stream also contributes to the generation of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) released through incineration emissions to air and in the ash. Ultimately many POP’s end up in the ocean, bio-accumulating in the food-chain and re-contaminating through melting ice sheets, driven by climate change.

Even the most modern and expensive pollution control devices cannot prevent the escape of many hazardous emissions such as ultra-fine particles and nanoparticles. Ultra-fine particles are produced from burning materials (including PCBs, dioxins and furans), which are smaller in size than what is currently regulated or monitored by the U.S. EPA. These particles can be lethal, causing cancer, heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and pulmonary disease.

Incineration of plastics is not renewable energy as plastic is derived from finite natural resources. Burning plastics creates a demand for more plastic and discourages much-needed efforts to conserve resources, reduce packaging and waste and encourage recycling and composting.

False Solutions: Recycling

Recycling and the circular economy is widely seen as a solution to our (plastic) waste problem. However while both are in principle promising approaches, the reality is often more toxic.

A global survey in 2017, performed by IPEN (a global civil society network) and Arnika (an environmental organization in the Czech Republic). found that recycling plastics, which contains toxic flame retardant chemicals found in electronic waste, resulted in contamination of the world’s best-selling toy along with other children’s products. Ironically, the chemical contaminants can damage the nervous system and reduce intellectual capacity but are found in Rubik’s Cubes – a puzzle toy designed to exercise the mind.

The toxic chemicals, OctaBDE, DecaBDE, and HBCD, are used in the plastic casings of electronic products and if they are not removed, they are carried into new products when the plastic is recycled. The survey of products from 26 countries found that 90% of the samples contained OctaBDE or DecaBDE. Nearly half of them (43%) contained HBCD. These chemicals are persistent and known to harm the reproductive system and disrupt hormone systems, adversely impacting intelligence, attention, learning and memory.

Read the full report here.

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