Ever since its invention, we have produced and consumed an incredible amount of plastic. Globally, an estimated 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste have been disposed of with 9% of that being recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% going to landfill. Each year we produce an additional 300 million tonnes of plastic waste and that is projected to continue.
How we manage that is the multi-billion dollar question. Too much of it ends up in the natural environment and is having major impacts that will affect this planet for decades. Attempts to clean that up are beginning and showing promising results, but the plastic tap is still running and there’s little sign of it being turned off.
If we assume that plastic will continue to be produced for decades to come with no sign of letting up, we have three options to manage that:
- We send our waste to landfill
- We burn it
- We recycle it
Burying Our Plastic Habit
The vast majority of our waste goes to landfill and much of that is plastic. When buried underground in landfill sites, plastic remains there, inert, out of sight and out of our mind. It won’t break into microplastics and, assuming the landfill site is properly contained, it will remain in the ground, unable to pollute the environment.
The problems arise when plastic waste is dumped into landfills that are illegally developed. There are stringent regulations that landfills must abide by here in the UK and in much of the developed world but not in much of the developing world. Without the regulations that are in place to protect the natural environment and human life, plastic can be blown or washed out of landfills, or leach into soils and groundwater sources – something India is having difficulty dealing with.
Here in the UK we’re running out of landfill capacity. In 2017, a report calculated that the UK had 6.8 years of landfill capacity left – that takes us just beyond 2022. In that time more landfills will likely open and more capacity will be found, but the amount of waste we’re producing will soon overrun what space there is and we’ll have to ship it overseas or found other ways of getting rid of it.
Burning the Evidence
Another way of keeping plastic out of landfill is by incinerating. It’s estimated that 12% of the total global plastic waste has been incinerated. As countries all over the world look to move away from fossil fuels, generating energy from the burning of waste has been moving higher up the list of alternatives – we’re certainly producing more than enough waste!
Here in the UK, the amount of waste, including plastic, that is being incinerated is rapidly on the rise. In 2018, 42% of all municipal waste was being incinerated in energy from waste plants and the number of incinerators here in the UK is expected to double over the next 10 years. The UK’s plan for their waste management is fairly clear.
The problem with burning waste and plastics is the harmful particulate matter, the toxic gases and the carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change. Without the technology to keep those particles out of the atmosphere, the air pollution that’s produced from particulate matter can cause huge problems to human health. Here in the UK, that technology has been put to use and is keeping that particulate matter out of the atmosphere. Compared to the particulate matter that comes from traffic and construction, it’s fractional.
Plastic is a hydrocarbon – it’s made from the very fuel that is pushing the planet closer and closer to a climate disaster. By burning it for energy, huge volumes of carbon dioxide are released in the atmosphere – the burning of plastic in developing countries contributes to 4.6 million tonnes of CO2 every year. Even in some of the most technologically-advanced energy from waste incinerators, the release of carbon dioxide is a huge problem and won’t lead to the much needed reductions in emissions that will limit global average temperature rise.
Recycling What We Use
The problem with recycling here in the UK is that it’s still extremely complicated. Some materials are easy; plastic bottles, aluminium cans and cardboard (for example) are easily recycled and the vast majority of the public know that. However, there are other plastics used in packaging or as single-use items that are either not recyclable in the UK or recyclable in certain councils. These differences depending on location make it extremely difficult for people to know what to recycle and for companies to label what items are recyclable.
Even if the public did know exactly what plastics can be recycled, a lot of waste is being sent overseas as the UK doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with the amount that’s produced. Before new regulations on the exporting of waste passed through Parliament at the start of the year, around two-thirds was sent overseas to countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. Before that, China took the vast majority of recyclable waste from the UK and many other developed countries.
The new regulations mean that the UK can no longer send plastic waste to developing countries. However, recyclable plastic waste will still be exported overseas, including countries like Turkey and Poland that both have poorly regulated dumps – we’re not even exporting it abroad to be recycled!
How Can We Manage Our Consumption
The excessive amount of plastic we’re producing, consuming and throwing to waste after only one use is staggering. Here in the UK we are running out of capacity to bury our plastic waste, we don’t have the infrastructure to recycle it properly and instead of building that infrastructure we’re choosing to incinerate it and call it “clean energy”.
We’ve been happy to use plastic to develop and grow at the rapid speed we have but we’ve not truly thought about how we manage the waste that is produced from that mass consumption. The convenience of single-use plastics has made our lives easier, but we’re growing increasingly blind to the waste we’re burying, burning, or sending overseas – more needs to be done to recycle what we consume and reduce the virgin plastics we need for new products.