A Warne’s Managing Director, Jonathan Moore, discusses the benefits and drawbacks of burning plastic to create energy.

There can be no doubt that as the world’s plastic use continues to rise, innovative solutions for dealing with waste must be found.

Transforming plastic into energy via incineration is just one solution, but it’s not as clear cut as you might think. We certainly don’t want to be burning everything we make. A better balance, I think, is to go with the Dutch model.

Going Dutch

The Dutch model is to recycle as much as possible, then burn the rest. In this way, they put very little – or nil – to landfill. In fact, when a company says they are nil to landfill, quite often what they mean is that they are exporting to Holland.

Bearing in mind that this waste exists, energy recovery has to be better than landfill if you can’t recycle it. And I think it’s in that order: recycle first, then incinerate.

Location, location, location

In the UK, we’re now seeing an increasing number of incinerator plants crop up, as the people who build them are now more receptive to the idea that it’s better to do these things locally and not have the waste shipped abroad. However, we’re a small country and no one really wants an incinerator in their backyard.

People just don’t like the concept of an incinerator being close to them. There is a perception of it being heavily polluted, which in many cases it isn’t. Most plastics have a high calorific value, which enables incinerators to run at a high temperature and burn clean. Plus, modern incinerators have very good scrubbing equipment which enables them to clean the air before it’s emitted.

The good news is, councils are warming up to the idea of introducing further incinerators – it’s costing them too much money not to. In fact, they’re now pushing through planning applications, whereas in the past they might have rejected them.

Improving recycling in the UK

We keep waste to a minimum at A.Warne, but what we do produce is treated as post-industrial waste and can be re-extruded without additional processing.

However, when it comes to consumer waste, the quality of the recyclate that companies want is getting higher and higher. This is because consumer products get dirty and lose their value, as they require further processing, such as washing. If the final product is going to be used to contain food, plastic needs to be washed through something like the CleanWay system, which makes it certified safe for food use.

As a result, some councils now seem to want everyone to wash their containers out, and then dry them, before they put them in the recycling – making the process increasingly arduous for the consumer.

The good news is, new sorting sites have arrived on the scene that use infrared technology to sort plastics more efficiently than ever before, which can only help to increase the viability of our recycling system by shifting the burden away from the consumer.

Circular economy? It’s really a spiral

People want to know that their plastic has had another use before it’s discarded, but if you take APET as an example, after 3 or 4 heat histories it starts to degrade. It’s no longer able to be used in consumables and it ends up becoming park benches or jumpers.

It’s probably more accurate to think of the circular economy as a spiral, because everything degrades as it’s reused. In that sense, the burning of plastic to create energy could potentially be seen as a final use.

Is the future in fuel?

Perhaps it’s time to look at the economy in a different way. A fairly eminent professor said that he couldn’t understand the problem with taking oil, a finite resource, and turning it into a plastic product before burning it. If oil is being transformed into something useful before it’s turned into fuel, then you’ve had one more use out of it than you would have had before.

Is transforming our plastic waste into energy a cure-all? I don’t believe so, but it’s certainly a viable solution for end-of-life plastics – and it’s infinitely better than landfill. Who knows, as fossil fuels become increasingly rare and incineration technology improves, we might even start digging up landfill sites to harness the energy that’s locked away inside them.

How is energy created from plastic?

Most plastic has a high calorific value, so when it’s burned it generates a lot of heat. This is then used to heat water, which in turn powers turbines and generates electricity.