Updated: April 2017
At my city’s Earth Day celebration last year, I came across a bustling booth excitedly announcing a new “Energy Bag” program coming to Omaha.
To participate in the program, customers buy a pack of 20 bright orange (and brand spanking new) plastic “Energy bags” to be filled with typically non-recyclable plastics, including polystyrene (#6), mixed media food wrappers (frozen meals, granola bars), etc. Recyclers then pick up the bags along with traditional curb-side recycling, sort, and process the waste. Finally, cement plant operators take the waste and burn it as a secondary energy source. Omaha would be the first major US city to implement this plastic collection program with the intention of burning it in a cement kiln. A successful program here would set a precedent and encourage expansion of similar programs throughout the country.
I would love to see my city be a pioneer in environmental initiatives, but I’m not sure this is quite what I had in mind.
For one, I think the guise of a new “recycling” stream provides an extra excuse for consumers to continue buying single-use plastic. I’m not sure this messaging belongs at an Earth Day celebration.
Secondly, non-recyclable landfilled plastic could actually serve as a form of carbon capture and storage.
Lastly, I don’t feel comfortable with the existing studies regarding air quality impacts from burning plastics for energy at a cement plant.
I break down my thought processes further below:
The core reason for my uneasiness will likely never go away
If we are serious about environmental stewardship, we must follow the 7 R’s (+1) for every purchasing decision:
Just say no to disposable products or offerings you don’t need. Do you really need another key chain with a company’s logo on it? Do you need a straw with your drink or 20 condiment packets with your meal? The answer is probably not. Minimalism can do wonders for your mental health 🙂
Ask the cashier not to print the receipt. Start making some of your own staples (salad dressing, broth, etc.). Cut down on those single-use plastics and instead invest in reusable alternatives.
Choose reusable when possible. Create your own personalized and unique reusable zero waste kit by filling a mason jar with reusable utensils and a cloth napkin. Get inspired by shopping at your local thrift stores or responsible online stores like Life Without Plastic.
Can the item be repaired? Search for local repair shops in the area or find DIY tutorials on YouTube.
Get crafty and creative. See if you can upcycle the item into something new. Or use it for a different purpose around the house. Pinterest is a great resource for all upcycling ideas!
Until recently, most people saw recycling as the perfect solution. But that’s not exactly the case. If you are recycling something, it is likely because you weren’t able to refuse, reduce, or reuse it. Plus, a product made from recycled plastic is almost always of lesser quality than it’s source material. This is called “downcycling”. All plastic will eventually end up in a landfill or in our environment. Have you read about the issues with microplastics?
If we can’t refuse, reduce, reuse, or recycle an item, we should be able to let it “rot” (i.e. compostable). If you can’t, then you should think twice before using or purchasing that item in the future (use the 8th “R” word below).
See if you can find a similar product to meet your needs in a fully recyclable (or preferably reusable) container. If your curbside pickup doesn’t accept it, is there another recycling stream you can utilize? For example:
- Find plastic film recycling locations in your area. Many of these locations take more than just plastic bags. They will also take other flexible plastic film such as collapsed shipping bubbles you receive with packages.
- You can even easily find drop-off locations for EPS foam (styrofoam).
- In Omaha? Check out the Zero Waste Omaha map.
- Still stumped? Check out this recycling location database.
Companies are seeing an increase in consumer demand for truly sustainable products. Many are forming partnerships with innovators to new consumer products out of these difficult-to-recycle materials. An example of this is the Clif bar campaign, which created a recycling stream for all wrappers with metallic films (i.e. mylar) on the inside. Other items with REAL recycling opportunities include candy wrappers, plastic pet food bags, juice pouches, and toothpaste tubes. Terracycle even has a specific recycling stream for cigarette butts!
We can easily avoid “non-recyclable plastics”
I am not perfect. I continue to buy my favorite frozen organic vegan burritos wrapped with “mixed media” plastic. Mixed media plastics contain two different types of material encased together in one lightweight film. The two plastics used for my burrito are PET (#1 plastic) on the outside and PE (#4 plastic) on the inside, deemed necessary for preservation. Both #1 and #4 plastics are easily recyclable on their own, but layering makes them nearly impossible to recycle. This is deemed a “necessary evil” to preserve the contents inside, while having a stable outside material. They are extremely yummy and healthy. So, this is an example of one purchase I will continue to “reduce” but won’t completely eliminate. I have also told the company I would be willing to pay more for a recyclable or compostable wrapper.
FYI – If you have read my Ditch the Paper Cup post you know paper coffee cups have a similar issue. That is one easy to “refuse”
The Energy Bag information pamphlet lists a number of other items (at least 30) that “currently don’t belong in the recycling bin”, but, according to them, belong in the Energy Bag. Examples included single-serve coffee pods, plastic serving ware, styrofoam cups and “to-go” boxes, etc. Many of these products simply don’t belong on our planet – period.
Their saying is “If you can’t bin it, bag it”. I say “If you can’t bin it, ask yourself why you bought it in the first place.”
Energy and cement companies can burn plastic waste as a “renewable energy source”
I’m beginning to realize the definition of renewable energy does not necessary mean carbon free. Many states have developed renewable portfolio standards (RPS), a regulatory mandate to increase the percent production of renewable energy. Under the RPS definition, burning plastic waste qualifies as “renewable energy” displacing incentives for other carbon-free alternatives (such as wind, solar, etc.).
Each year, the number of world citizens concerned with climate change increases. Even conservative leaders are considering passing some form of carbon regulation in the US (e.g., carbon fee and dividend). Thus, creating more infrastructure to burn fossil fuels (regardless of what form they are in) is not a good idea.
Putting plastic in the landfill can actually serve as a form of “carbon capture and storage”
Let me try to explain why:
Industry creates plastic from fossil fuels. When we mine fossil fuel, and aggressively burn them above ground, we alter the planet’s carbon balance and accelerate climate change. When we create plastics from that fossil fuel, we are temporarily “locking” the carbon (for hundreds to thousands of years) in the plastic’s chemical structure.
But, if we instead burn the plastic and produce energy from it, this simply allows fossil fuel reserves to take the “scenic route” to the atmosphere, wreaking havoc on our natural resources along the way?
That doesn’t seem like a sustainable form of renewable energy to me.
We need to remember saving space in landfills isn’t our only environmental concern
Energy Bag supporters have two main arguments:
1) Prevent non-recyclable materials from ending up in a landfill, and
2) Plastic waste is “cleaner” than coal.
Let’s break each of these down.
Energy Bag Argument #1: “We don’t want this non-recyclable plastic to end up in the landfill”
Last I checked, plastic was ending up everywhere (our oceans and streams, our tree branches, our drains, the food chain…) Having it go from our homes to an incinerator instead of from our homes to the landfill won’t solve this problem. Refusing, Reducing, and Reusing will.
Energy Bag Argument #2: “Is plastic cleaner than coal?”
Many European countries and certain areas of the US do successfully operate full closed-loop pyrolysis units where little to no emissions are produced. These pyrolysis plants either produce energy from the plastics directly or turn the waste plastics into synthetic crude oil further processed at a refinery. Pyrolysis of waste plastics still produces carbon emissions instead of sequestering the carbon in landfilled plastic. But at least these facilities are built with plastic waste processing (and emissions controls) in mind. In my opinion, this is quite different from burning plastics for secondary energy in a cement kiln.
A recent study, funded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), concluded that burning plastic (mixed with other non-recyclable materials like soiled paper) in a cement kiln produces less sulfur dioxide emissions than coal. However, I have yet to read a study that analyzes the full suite of compounds (particularly dioxins and furans) that could arise from incomplete combustion of mixed plastics in a cement kiln. If you are reading this and know of such a study, please share in the comments!
The fuel would include a variety of “non-recyclable plastics”. These variations will directly affect burn temperature, burn efficiency, and the resulting stack emissions, making some form of continuous fuel or emission sampling a necessity.
Similarly, the ACC study confirmed samples from the mixed plastic “fuel” stream contained a wide range of chlorine concentrations highlighting the need to “apply regulations and certification for fuels”. Burning chlorinated waste produce dioxins in our environment. Therefore, continuous sampling is also necessary to reduce the potential for hazardous air emissions.
And that metallic film on the energy bars? According to the Energy Bag supporters, that is okay too! So, let’s just make sure we add the full suite of metal testing to the mix as well.
Not in my Backyard
Last year, Energy Bag supporters hoped to burn the plastic waste at the cement plant closest to Omaha. My fear was this would happen without public comment, and without transparent and 3rd party environmental testing. As I am already actively commenting and expressing concerns regarding other aspects of our city’s waste management programs, I hoped this wasn’t yet another environmental issue to fall through the cracks.
A few years back, the cement plant nearby began using tires to replace coal as the secondary fuel source. Air permit records indicate the tires do increase air emissions of certain compounds (including dioxins and furans). However, since the original air permit didn’t specify the exact alternative fuels allowed, the change didn’t trigger a more thorough environmental review subject to potentially stricter limits on air emissions (i.e., Prevention of Significant Deterioration [PSD]). I was concerned the same would happen with plastic fuel.
However, I was happy to find out our cement plant wasn’t licensed to burn plastics. Instead plastic waste from the Energy Bags collected in Omaha will be sent to a cement plant in Missouri. How would you feel if this was in your town?
I hope this article has inspired you to do your own research on new “environmental” initiatives in your city. Be conscious of the motivation behind the actions. My motivation is to keep our air and waterways clean, what motivation does a plastic manufacturer have?
Please share your thoughts below!
Earth911.com Guide to Plastics