Why Burning Plastic Won’t Solve the Plastic Crisis

This post is written by plastics campaigners at Greenpeace UK and guest authors from UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN), and originally published on greenpeace.org.uk

Earlier in July, the long-awaited results of The Big Plastic Count – the UK’s largest ever investigation into household plastic waste – were revealed. The citizen science project sought to discover how much plastic we throw away, where it actually goes once it leaves our homes, and how much of it gets recycled.

Turns out it’s not a lot. Sadly, just 12% of the 100 billion pieces of plastic leaving our homes every year is actually recycled in the UK. What happens to the rest of it? Well, most ends up in an incinerator.

Incineration is bad for the climate

Plastic is almost entirely made from oil and gas. So burning it is essentially burning fossil fuels. In fact, for every tonne of dense plastic burned more than two tonnes of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Now, let’s consider the fact that UK households throw away nearly 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging a year, and nearly half of that is ending up burned. Incinerating this plastic releases around 750,000 tonnes of CO2 into our atmosphere each year. That’s the same as adding 350,000 cars to our roads here in the UK.

To make matters worse, global plastic production is set to triple by 2060. This means that, without a big change, the amount of plastic incinerated will also increase.

Those profiting from incineration often call the energy from burning waste “green”. This greenwash would be laughable if it wasn’t so utterly frustrating. The reality is, electricity from plastic incineration is even dirtier than coal.

We’re in a climate crisis. We urgently need to stop extracting fossil fuels. We need to transition to renewable energy, such as wind and solar. We do not need to worsen climate change by burning plastic under the guise of being “green”.

It’s bad for air quality and our health

Burning plastic waste also releases a range of toxic gases, heavy metals, and particles into the air. These can be bad for our health.

Dioxins are just one of the many harmful emissions from incinerators. They are highly toxic and can cause cancer and damage to the immune system. Dioxins are also known to interfere with hormones. This can trigger problems in our brain, reproductive and nervous systems.

Even state-of-the-art incinerators can give off potentially dangerous amounts of dioxins. Because, while incinerators are fitted with technology to capture such toxins, some get through the filters.

Research has found chicken eggs within 2 kilometres of a modern incinerator were unsuitable for consumption due to contamination. A 2021 study found high levels of dioxins near incinerators.

Far better solutions exist to tackle the plastic crisis. Corporations and governments should not sacrifice the health of local communities with poor plastic waste management.

It’s costing us money

For decades, incinerators have been releasing harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the burning of plastic without compensating society for the climate harm it’s causing.

Last year alone, the incineration of plastic in the UK was responsible for nearly £2 billion of unpaid climate harm. And this staggering figure doesn’t even include the associated health costs.

It’s racist and classist

Incineration is also a prime example of environmental injustice. Incinerators are three times more likely to be built in the UK’s most deprived neighbourhood and more than 40% of existing incinerators are in areas with higher diversity than their local average.

An infamous example of this is the Edmonton ‘EcoPark’ – an incinerator located in one of the most deprived areas in England, where 65% of residents are people of colour. In the words of Enfield Black Lives Matter campaigner, Delia Mattis:

“We need to be calling this what it is; racism. These industries know that when they place an incinerator in an area like Edmonton, one of the most deprived constituencies in the country, people won’t get involved in campaigns against it because they are already tired from fighting against racial oppression and injustice all their lives”.

The recent decision to expand the Edmonton incinerator, despite strong objections from local communities, is in stark contrast to the decision made by Cambridgeshire County Council, where “the incinerator was rejected because it wasn’t in keeping with the listed and historic buildings in the area. In Cambridgeshire buildings are important, in Edmonton, lives are not.”

It competes with recycling and we’re already over-capacity

Incinerators can’t be easily switched off and on, so they need constant feeding to keep running. This means incinerators compete for plastic and other waste with recycling and composting facilities. Incinerators are expensive to build, and as incineration companies want a return on their investment, these facilities tend to be run for decades.

This often means waste companies secure long-term contracts with local councils who promise to pay for capacity whether they use it or not. Councils often then go on to tell local residents that they can’t afford to invest in waste education or recycling because, even if it resulted in less waste being burned, they would still need to pay for the incinerator.

It should therefore come as no surprise that regions with the highest rates of incineration also tend to have the lowest recycling rates. Incinerators in the UK are relying on burning recyclable material to keep going. We already have far too much incineration capacity and we certainly do not want any more.

And no, simply increasing recycling capacity isn’t the answer either. Plastic reduction is the key.

So what can be done?

Incineration is not a viable option for solving the plastic crisis, and is making the climate crisis even worse. So what needs to be done? And what can you do to help?

One obvious action that needs to be taken is the phasing out of incineration, and some parts of the UK are already leading the way.  In June this year, Scotland introduced a ban on new incinerators – meaning no further planning permissions will be granted for new Scottish waste incineration capacity. This follows Wales introducing a ban in 2021. Both countries acknowledge that new incinerators act as a barrier to achieving zero waste, net zero and a circular economy.

The rest of the UK must now follow in their footsteps.

The UK must also focus on reducing single use packaging, and transitioning towards reusable options – alternatives that cost less both financially and environmentally. Reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place, means less plastic being burned, less carbon in the atmosphere and less toxins in our air. Greenpeace is demanding that the government halves single use plastic by 2025.

For the sake of our health and our planet, burning plastic needs to end.

Help UKWIN reach over 125.000 signatures calling for an incineration moratorium

SIGN THE PETITION to the UK Government calling for them to “Fix the UK’s plastic waste crisis: reduce single use plastic by 50% by 2025, ban all waste exports, ban new incinerators being built, and roll out a deposit return scheme.”

“Incinerators in the UK are relying on burning recyclable material to keep going. We already have far too much incineration capacity and we certainly do not want any more.”

UK Without Incineration Network (UKWIN)