Can I burn plastics to generate energy? Is this an eco-friendly idea?

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Plastics are everywhere. Plastics are useful. We cannot imagine our modern, comfortable life without plastics.

But plastics are also a pain. Once disposed, they just don’t subtly slink away like Jeeves. They hang around in the environment – on land, in water, wherever – almost forever. And create all sorts of problems.

If only there were an effective way to dispose of these!

Well, folks are trying.

Enter recycling

One such effort is to recycle plastics.

While there is a good amount of plastic recycling, there is also a considerable percentage of plastics that are not recycled either because it is difficult to recycle them (very thin plastic films for instance), or because of logistical issues (lack of segregation at source, for instance).

What else?

What can be done about these non-recycled or non-recyclable plastics?

Letting them rot in the landfill is not a good enough idea as they can forever hang on there. These plastics being strewn all over town is an even worse idea – who knows where these might end up!

For such plastics, burning them looks like a neat way of disposal – especially when you consider that such incineration can also generate heat and/or power. Burning plastics to generate energy is nothing exotic, as plastics are made from oil, and have high calorific value. So it is not very different from burning coal to generate power, which is what conventional power plants do.

But is burning eco-friendly?

But you may ask: Doesn’t burning plastics generate CO2? Yes, it does, but in the case where such burning is done to generate power, the math could be a lot more kind to plastic burning.

You see, it is is like this. Let us say you are burning 1 ton of plastics to generate a certain amount of power. As plastics have high calorific value (over 9000 KCal/Kg vs. 5000-6000 KCal/Kg for coal), you will be generating as much or more energy and power from burning plastics as you will by burning the same amount (by weight) of coal. Put another way, if you don’t burn plastic for those units of power, you will most likely be burning coal and end up releasing more CO2! At the same time, burning plastics additionally solves the problem of their disposal too, a benefit not provided by coal burning.

Thus, you can see how burning plastics actually has a good environmental business case.

But beware of PVC!

But beware – heating some plastics, especially PVC, can emit toxic material such as dioxins (polychlorinate compounds, serious pollutants) and furans (aromatic ringed compounds, quite toxic).

Thus, any facility that burns plastics to recover energy should put in effective mechanisms to capture these toxins and prevent them from being released to the atmosphere. For instance, the amounts of dioxins and furans formed during incineration can be reduced by higher temperatures which result in a more complete burning.

Overall, thus, this is my inference

Incineration of non-recyclable plastic waste is a useful idea as long as effective pollution control measures have been incorporated.

Related Posts at Cleantech Guide

  • What are the effective ways to reduce plastic pollution? – Link
Can I burn plastics to generate energy? Is this an eco-friendly idea? - Cleantech Guide

2 comments

  1. Dow Chemical the country s largest producer of polyethylene this week announced a successful test project in which it burned 578 pounds of the filmy plastic scrap to generate energy. Dow was able to extract nearly all the energy embedded in the material, showing that used plastic can be used to create heat or electricity, according to Jeff Wooster, plastics sustainability leader for Dow s North American Plastics business. It also demonstrated a feasible way of dealing with hard-to-recycle plastics, like the lightweight films used in packaging. We were looking for a way to make use of the material so it doesn t just end up in landfills, explained Wooster.

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