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Incinerating plastic to generate energy will place net-zero out of reach

We must remove plastics from waste sent to incinerators to reduce carbon impact. By 2035, plastics will contribute to increased air pollution levels to a greater extent than landfill, reveals a report by Eunomia, commissioned by ClientEarth.

Increasingly, hard-to-recycle plastic waste is being sent to incinerators to generate electricity. Plastic is derived from crude oil and carbon is released when it is burnt.

According to a report by Eunomia, an independent environmental consultancy, electricity generation at incinerators will soon become closer in carbon intensity to coal and gas than to wind and solar.

Plastics sent to incineration will mean incinerators will emit toxins and pollutants detrimental to local air quality.

‘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,’ Principal consultant at Eunomia, Ann Ballinger, said.

‘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.’

Watch the Dispatches episode – The dirty truth about your rubbish.