Is burning plastic bad for the environment?

Plastic is flooding our environment

Plastic, because of its increasing demand, has become a major environmental issue today. The environment we’re living in is suffocating because of excessive plastic waste. Our lives rely on plastic: its production increases every year and above all, it’s non-biodegradable. Take a look around! From drinking water to operating heavy machinery, you will see plastic in almost everything. We can’t even go a day without it. And it’s only getting worse. Terrible things will happen if we don’t stop plastic pollution. To get rid of massive amounts of plastic waste, people are sometimes forced to burn it. This raises the question,

Is burning plastic bad for the environment?

Why is plastic a problem?

All the generated plastic waste, if not managed properly, ends up floating in the oceans or accumulates in the stomachs of marine wildlife (Read Effects of Plastic Pollution in the Ocean). Such consequences require efficient waste management strategies. However, to get rid of plastic waste, some people have already been practicing those strategies. Burning plastic is one of them. But burning plastic doesn’t sound like a good idea, does it? Our environmentally-conscious minds may question ‘is burning plastic bad for the environment?’ And, if it is, then why do people do it anyway? Is there any other way to deal with plastic waste? This article will explain everything.

Plastic waste management: why do people burn plastic?

Burning waste is a frequently adopted practice in many countries. It is common among people to burn plastic waste in their backyards or any other open space. But this is not the only way to manage plastic waste. Its management also involves reducing, reusing, recycling or landfilling. Implementing the 3 Rs (Reduce Reuse Recycle) is the most preferred option of all.

People burn plastic waste along with other wastes for multiple reasons, such as:

  • Laziness to haul it to a proper disposal site;
  • Lack of awareness or care for their environment;
  • They don’t want to spend money on waste collection services;
  • There is no proper waste collection system, especially in rural areas, so burning is the only way to get rid of all the waste.

If incineration remains some people’s only choice, then you must be wondering: ‘how bad can burning plastic be for the environment?’ Here is the answer.

Is burning plastic bad for the environment?

The answer depends on how you are burning it. If you are choosing open burning, then don’t do it! It’s too dangerous for the environment and human health. In fact, it is considered as the least favourable method to reduce plastic waste. If you’re using an incinerator, then yes, but only if it is properly equipped with emission control technology. Surprisingly, the current technological era has made it safer to burn plastic. But is it a completely safe approach? Keep reading to find out more.

After all, is burning plastic bad for the environment or not? The underlying explanation will help you understand it in detail.

Burning plastic in open space is an unsafe method

Open burning is the easiest and fastest way to get rid of plastic waste. There is no doubt that it reduces a large amount of plastic waste, but many people are unaware of its downsides. Open-air burning emits pollutants without being filtered or treated. Present studies have confirmed that the open burning of plastic is far more dangerous than previously thought. It leads to new issues for both human health and its environment such as:

Bad odour

Burning plastic stinks. If you’ve accidentally burnt a plastic wrapper in your kitchen or thrown a plastic cup in a campfire, then you must have experienced how nasty it smells. I remember when I had to leave a public gathering just because someone was burning plastic in the area. The smoke it releases is so irritating that it makes you want to stop breathing or put on a mask.

Toxic gases

Burning plastic not only emits a bad odour, but also certain toxic gases. The incineration approach, when done in open space, proves to be the worst as it releases toxic smoke containing hazardous chemicals such as dioxins, furans, Sulphur dioxide, styrene gas, and particulates. These chemicals are dangerous to the health of both the burner and the people surrounding him.

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Some health effects of the two most dangerous chemical emissions are stated below:

1. Dioxins

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are those substances that continue to exist in the environment because they are not degradable. POPs are also sometimes termed as “forever chemicals”. Dioxins are POPs and are highly toxic in nature.

Plastics such as PVC emit the most dangerous kind of chemicals in the atmosphere while burning. They release high concentrations of dioxins that can accumulate on crops or pollute our waterways. This way, they can enter our food chain, drinking water, and eventually our bodies. Major harmful effects are:

  • Dioxins are carcinogenic therefore lead to cancer;
  • They can cause reproductive and developmental disorders as they disrupt hormones and transfer from mother to baby;
  • They can cause disorders in our immune system.

2. Styrene gas

Styrene gas is released from incinerating polystyrene polymers such as egg containers, foam cups, and yogurt containers. It is easily absorbed by lungs and skin. Health effects include:

  • A high concentration of styrene gas can harm human eyes and mucous membranes.
  • When exposed for a longer period, it can cause damage to the central nervous system, which results in weakness, fatigue, depression, and headaches.

Bioaccumulation

It is defined as the accumulation of chemicals in an organism’s body. Bioaccumulation from burning plastic usually occurs through indirect exposure to contaminated food or water. It does not occur from directly breathing polluted air.

Unfortunately, wildlife is not safe from exposure to these contaminants. Some chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, furans, and mercury, are highly persistent in nature. They can accumulate in the organisms found at the top of the food chain. Effects on wildlife include cancer, immunological disorders, reproductive failures, and minor neurobehavioral effects. Humans are also indirectly exposed to these pollutants by consuming contaminated seafood, dairy products, meat or water.

Climate change

Is burning plastic bad for the climate? There is no reason why it’s not. Plastic is produced using coal and gas therefore it burns like fossil fuels. Poorly-regulated plastic burning releases pollutants that contribute to the greenhouse effect. This causes ozone depletion, which leads to a variety of other environmental issues such as a rise in sea levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated that, from a climate perspective, burning plastic is by far the worst management practice in terms of ending life.

Read more about 7 Most causes of Global Warming and effective ways to solve it.

Waste-to-energy: can we derive energy from burning plastic?

As mentioned earlier, plastic is made from oil and gas, which is why its incineration releases a large amount of energy. Incinerators can burn plastic waste in a safe environment and produce enough energy to run a turbine and generate electricity. So, deriving energy from plastic waste makes quite a lot of sense. This approach is termed as waste-to-energy (WtE).

Employing waste-to-energy is a safer approach because it emits lower levels of harmful chemicals. The incinerators have modern filters that avoid the release of toxic pollutants in the environment. However, this process requires intensive monitoring. A little negligence can result in the release of harmful chemicals in the environment.

Are there any other safe approaches?

Other ways to turn plastic waste into energy include gasification and pyrolysis. Both of them are a bit different than burning.

Gasification involves melting plastic at very high temperatures but with controlled oxygen. An advantage of gasification is that it doesn’t produce dioxins and furans. It produces a gas that is helpful in firing turbines.

Pyrolysis, on the other hand, involves the melting of shredded plastic at lower temperatures and less oxygen than gasification. The end product can be refined to produce diesel fuel or new plastics.

After all, is burning plastic bad for the environment?

As we learned, burning plastic in an open space is the worst strategy for plastic waste management. It emits bad odor and toxic gases that are harmful to the environment. Safe burning is possible through incinerators with emission control technologies. These incinerators not only control emissions of toxic chemicals but also convert waste into useful energy.

To minimize plastic pollution in the future, we need to stop producing plastic in the first place. If not, then we can try to reduce, reuse, or recycle plastic. And if open burning remains as our only option, then landfilling will be a wiser choice instead.

You can also read plastic pollution facts in 2020 and some causes.

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