While the number of plastics regulations is proliferating globally, how to deal with the problem of plastic pollution is complex, particularly when viewed through the prism of climate change and carbon accounting.
Plastics sequester both carbon and energy. While the period of carbon sequestration is negligible when it comes to single-use plastics, some plastics, for example in the built environment, represent long-term carbon sequestration, often with significant energy conservation attributes.
The lowest-hanging fruit when it comes to emissions savings for heat and power is simply to use less. Three of the cheapest means of household energy savings are roof insulation, wall cavity insulation and UVPC double glazing. The most economical materials in all three areas are petrochemicals based.
Even for single-use plastics, there are emissions benefits. Plastic-wrapped foods reduce waste, which in effect reduces the oil intensity of food production because more produce is delivered for the same upstream inputs, for example fertilizer or the diesel used in agricultural machinery.
Plastic wrapping is also integral to the concept of ‘light weighting’. Light plastic packaging, which includes plastic bottles, has to be set against the increased weight of the alternatives, and the emissions created in their production and recycling. The replacement of plastic bottles with glass increases both product weight and size, which in turn raises transportation costs and emissions.
Moreover, some regulations, for example Kenya’s complete ban on plastic bags, is directed primarily at visible land pollution and the problems of choked waterways and livestock and wildlife ingesting plastic waste.
These problems first and foremost reflect inadequate waste disposal systems. If waste disposal was improved, the problem of what to do with the plastic waste would still remain, but the lack of adequate collection in many parts of the world is a key barrier to raising plastic recycling rates.
Burn or recycle?
There are essentially three options to deal with plastics – incineration, where the energy content is recovered, but the carbon content is released to the atmosphere, gasification, where the resultant syngas is reconstituted as fuel and then burnt, or recycling.
From a climate change perspective, there is little question that recycling appears the best option. From a practical perspective, incineration…