Is Incineration of Plastic Waste Good or Bad?
Incineration has always posed a concern but what can be done with plastic waste when it can’t be reused? Often, we are left with two options – incineration and landfill. Neither of them are great options, but some say that incineration is better than landfill as plastic waste in landfills can still leak toxins into the environment. Yet, incineration also poses both environmental and human health risks. Toxic waste like fly ash from incinerators can still end up in landfills.
In Europe, many countries such as Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, have already banned or restricted landfills as they are big emitters of methane gas, and coupled with China’s ban on importing plastic waste (55.7% of worlds plastic, equivalent to over 14 million tons) in 2017, there has been renewed interest in the potential of waste-to-energy (WtE) incinerators.
European Commission on WtE incinerators
WtE incinerators can recover energy as heat from burning plastic waste to power homes and at the same time be used to tackle plastic waste that cannot be upcycled. Activists and many oppositions fear that more WtE incinerators will only encourage more waste and plastic consumptions, hindering progress towards a circular economy. There is also a great concern with the toxic waste and CO2 emissions that WtE incinerators can generate.
In 2017, the European Commission released a communication on the role of WtE in the circular economy. They reiterated that the waste hierarchy “is a key principle in the circular economy, and agrees that energy recovery processes can contribute to the transition towards a circular economy provided that the choices made do not hamper efforts to achieve higher levels of prevention, reuse and recycling”. The EU’s waste hierarchy defines waste management principles that prioritise prevention, preparation for reuse and recycling over waste-to-energy.
The European Commission also advised that all levels of government should reduce the quantity of waste sent for incineration and recognised that striking the right balance for the transition towards a circular economy is required when looking at WtE processes to also avoid potential economic losses.
Norway’s current plastic waste management strategy
540 000 tonnes of plastic waste are generated in Norway per year and only 24% of it is recycled; the rest gets incinerated, according to a 2020 report  by Mepex for Handelens Miljøfond. 40% of the plastic waste is packaging and the Norwegian plastic industry uses only 9% of recycled plastic in its products.
In recent years, the Norwegian government has been publishing new strategy plans on tackling plastic waste both at a domestic and international level, such as the single-use plastic ban, the Basel convention environmental agreement, and green growth technology investments for circular business models. Stricter regulations around microplastic pollution will be implemented in the near future as Norway will follow closely the incentives and legislations from the European Commission.
While Norway has a world-renowned waste management system that integrates recycling and plastic bottle deposit system, Norway’s poor performance on circularity rate is at 2.4%, well below the global average of 8.6%, which indicates that Norway still has a long way to go to transition towards a circular economy. The finding is from the Circularity Report Norway 2020 published by The Circularity Gap Reporting Initiative, an initiative by Circle Economy.
Not all hope is lost, according to the report on Achieving Circularity: A Zero-waste Circular Plastic Economy in Norway, there are many key technology leaders and solution providers in Norway tackling plastic waste issues and enabling circularity. Here is their list that we modified with additional companies denoted with *:
• Collection systems – e.g. return vending machine (RVM) systems, TOMRA
• Sorting technologies – e.g. TOMRA
• Recycling technologies - e.g. Quantafuel, Othalo, Recycls
• Alternative materials - e.g. the R&D provider SINTEF Ocean, Sulapac
• Enabling technologies - e.g. Empower
• Clean-Up technologies - e.g. Spilltech, LoVeMar, *Clean Sea Solutions, *Clear Ocean
• Disposal technologies - e.g. Fortum Oslo Varme (FOV), one of the first companies in the world to try carbon capture and storage on an incinerator.
Smarter WtE incinerators
There are already many different technologies to recycle plastic waste from mechanical to chemical recycling. It often depends on how efficient is the recycling process and whether the facilities handling the plastic waste is emitting any toxic substances back out into nature. Research has shown that burning plastic waste in the open field is a major source of air pollution, that releases toxic gases like dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls. This often occurs in countries where regulations are lacking.
Source: List of WtE technologies diagram from World Energy Resources: Waste to Energy 2016 report, by World Energy Council.
Europe holds 47.5% of the total market revenue for WtE technologies in 2013, according to World Energy Council. Though the Asia-Pacific market is also growing fast.
Major concerns with WtE incinerators for plastic waste are still the toxic gas and ash that are generated. However, smarter incinerators and new technology are being developed to remove them. Take the Norwegian company, Norsep who are developing a treatment for fly ash and recovering raw materials that can be used for making concrete and zinc production.
In Oslo, waste-to-energy incinerators are strictly regulated and provide heat to households. The municipality operates such that waste can be captured as a resource. An ambitious project to sequester carbon emission is at Klemetsrud, where one of Oslo’s incineration plants is situated. It is said that the plant will be the first in the world to be carbon negative. Their effort is aligned with the city’s goal to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and to be neutral by 2050.
Is burning plastic waste – good or bad?
Incineration should never encourage waste but rather as a last resort when the remaining plastic cannot be reused or upcycled in any way. Incinerators do demand a supply of waste so that it can be continued to be in use and are expensive to build. WtE incinerators should be phased out eventually as recommended by the European Commission.
“When you take fossil fuels out of the ground, make plastics with them, then burn those plastics for energy, it's clear that this is not a circle—it's a line,” says Rob Opsomer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to National Geographics, which promotes circular economy efforts. But pyrolysis, Opsomer adds, can be considered part of the circular economy if its outputs are used as feedstock for new high-quality materials—including durable plastics.
There is no single solution that can reduce the annual leakage of plastic into the ocean, but a multi-pronged approach, denotes as the System Change Scenario, to the current crisis can reach an 80% reduction of annual plastics leakage into the ocean by 2040, according to Breaking the Plastic Wave report. It is estimated that the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean by 2040 could reach 600 million tonnes—equivalent in weight to more than 3 million blue whales.
Source: Breaking the Plastic Wave by PEW and Systemiq.
In the diagram above, disposing 23% of the plastic waste that can’t be recycled securely is part of the System Change Scenario presented in the report as it prevents leakage to the ocean. Chemical conversation – plastic to fuel, landfill and incineration is in the dispose category, while open burning, terrestrial pollution and ocean pollution are in the mismanaged category.
The report also stated, “It is not the lack of technical solutions that is preventing us from addressing the ocean plastic crisis, but rather inadequate regulatory frameworks, business models, and funding mechanisms. Although the technical solutions exist, the incentives are not always in place to scale up these changes fast enough. A reduction of plastic production—through elimination, the expansion of consumer reuse options, or new delivery models—is the most attractive solution from environmental, economic, and social perspectives. It offers the biggest reduction in plastic pollution, often represents a net savings, and provides the highest mitigation opportunity in GHG emissions.”
At Ogoori, we foresee that a portion of our marine plastic litter will be incinerated, just as what The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit had to do. Marine plastic material does attract environmental contaminants. Therefore, it is important for us to work with scientists, such as NORCE researcher Marte Haave to evaluate the toxicity of our marine plastic material and share that knowledge with our customers.
Want to collaborate with us? Email Rune Gaasø at email@example.com
 Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: The Role of Waste-to-Energy in the Circular Economy, COM (2017) 34 final (Jan. 26, 2017)
 Materialstrømmen til plast i Norge – hva vet vi? (2020) by Mepex Consult AS for Handelens Miljøfond.
 In 2019, Norway implemented new amendments in the Basel Convention, a multilateral environmental agreement on the control of hazardous waste being transported between nations. The convention entered into force in 1992 and has 188 parties, excluding the US. The new regulatory regime is to introduce the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure for plastic waste that is mixed, polluted and generally of little recycling value. The exporter is required to submit documentation to its national authorities proving the existence of a contract with a recipient in the importing country, ensuring that the waste will be subject to environmentally sound management at its destination. Plastic waste that is suitable for recycling may be exported without going through the PIC procedures.