The debate over whether to burn plastic in New Zealand has come to the surface again. The debate, whilst not new, comes back to light as the country tries to grapple with a plastic overload.
There are several potential reasons for doing so. It is a very cost effective way to dispose of waste and there are numerous instances of overseas countries, particularly in Scandinavia doing so. Another reason is that waste can be burnt to create energy, thereby potentially supplying heat to heat water as is done in Denmark or generate electricity.
In the first instance, no, I do not believe we should be burning plastic. There are several reasons for this:
- Plastics may release dioxins, which are potentially cancer causing into the atmosphere
- Plastics have recyclable uses such as being used as bitumen on roads, according to trials carried out in India
- Reducing the plastic in our lives should come down to the question of what purposes we really need it for and making all that we deem necessary to have recyclable
But just for a couple of minutes, let us suppose we did decide burning plastics was necessary. New Zealand has strong rules under the Resource Management Act 1991 around the discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere.
A couple of potential issues exist around what kind of incinerator could be used. The first one concerns the use of incinerators. There are only three high powered incinerators (those that can burn material at temperatures above 800°C in New Zealand and the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality (2004) forbids the construction of any more. Lower powered incinerators are known to exist, but would they be powerful enough to do the job?
The same N.E.S.A.Q. set limits on Ozone, Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide as these are significant contributors to air pollution. They have a range of potential health effects in large quantities.
The second concerns our international obligations including, but not limited to climate change. Would we be in breach of those obligations by having incinerators simply burning up plastic waste?
Various attempts to get such plans underway have been canned in the past. In one such case Olivine, , was attempting to recommission the mothballed Meremere coal fired power station as a waste to energy plant that among other waste, would have used plastics. That was in 2000.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is a combination of government policy, but also the fact that in the last few years the range of plastics that can be recycled in New Zealand has been significantly increased. When the recycling triangle scheme where a triangle with a number between 1-6 signifying its suitability for recycling first appeared on plastics, the range was quite poor with only Classes 1-2 being eligible – 3,4,5,6 had to wait. It has improved now – only to be replaced by a laissez faire attitude to recycling .
New Zealand needs to address these issues before it can make a decision on whether or not to burn plastic.