Burning plastic to create energy will make net-zero impossible, report says

Incineration will become more carbon-intensive than landfill by 2035, according to a new report by Eunomia Research and Consulting, commissioned by ClientEarth.

The process of diverting waste from landfill and burning it at incinerators has been said to be key to reducing carbon emissions from waste treatment.

However, according to the report, electricity generation at incinerators will soon become closer in carbon intensity to coal and gas than to wind and solar.

This is because there is an increasing proportion of hard-to-recycle plastic waste being sent to incinerators. Plastic is derived from crude oil and carbon is released when it is burnt.

Due to this increasing quantity of waste being sent to incineration, incinerators will also emit more toxins and pollutants that harm local air quality.

Ann Ballinger, the principal consultant at Eunomia, said: ‘As recycling improves, the carbon intensity of Energy from Waste is set to increase over time as the proportion of plastics in the residual waste feedstock increases.

‘To achieve the UK’s goal of becoming a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050, all sectors of the economy must take action to reduce their carbon emissions. For waste incineration, this means focusing on plastics recycling to remove fossil carbon from the feedstock heading to EfW facilities if they are to achieve a net-zero waste management system.’

ClientEarth lawyer Tatiana Luján added: ‘As the world drowns in plastics and countries like China close their doors to foreign waste, incineration will increasingly be pushed as an ‘easy’ alternative.

‘But waste does not just disappear in a puff of smoke. The more waste and plastics are sent to be burnt, the more our environment and health will suffer in parallel.

‘At the end of the day, converting plastic waste into energy does nothing to reduce demand for new plastic products and even less to mitigate climate change. To push for these approaches is to distract from real solutions like reuse systems at scale.’

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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Pippa Neill

Pippa Neill

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