A method of plastic disposal with more positive environmental implications is burning and recovering the energy for power generation or heating. Plastics contain much of the energy potential of the petroleum from which they are made, and they, in a sense, are just borrowing this energy that may be recovered when the plastic is burned. Environmentalists and the public have objected to this procedure, leading to legislative restrictions. This has arisen, in part, because of the image of "old-fashioned" incinerators polluting the air with toxic fumes and ash. However, it is possible to construct a "high-tech" incinerator designed to operate at appropriate temperatures and with sufficient air supply that these problems are minimized. Remaining toxic substances in fumes may be removed by scrubbing, and studies have shown that no significant air pollution results. Toxic ash, for the most part, does not arise from the polymer components of the feedstock, but rather from other materials mixed with the polymers as well as from fillers, catalyst content, and pigments associated with the polymers. Proper design of the polymers and crude separation of the incinerator feedstock can reduce this problem. Furthermore, if the feedstock was not incinerated but placed in landfills, contaminants would ultimately enter the environment in an uncontrolled way. Incineration reduces the volume, so that the ash, which may contain them, can be disposed of under more controlled conditions. Also, it is possible to insolublize the ash by converting it into a cementlike material that will not readily dissolve.
Facilities for converting trash to energy in an environmentally acceptable way are expensive and at present not cost-effective when considering short-range funding. However, in the long run, they are environmentally desirable and reduce the need for alternative means for plastic waste disposal. It is imperative that legislators and taxpayers soon adopt this long-range perspective. see also Endocrine Disruption; Recycling; Solid Waste; Waste.
American Plastics Council. (2001). "2000 National Post Consumer Plastics Recycling Report." Arlington, VA: Author.
Gerngross, T.U., and Slater, S.C. (2000). "How Green Are Green Plastics." Scientific American August.
Hocking, M.B. (1991). "Paper vs. Polystyrene, a Complex Choice." Science 251.
Limbach, B.M. (1990). Plastics and the Environment, Progress and Commitment. Washington, D.C.: Society of the Plastics Industry.
Piaecki, B.; Rainry, D.; and Fletcher, K. (1998). "Is Combustion of Plastics Desirable?" American Scientist 86: 364.
Stein, R.S. (1992). "Polymer Recycling: Opportunities and Limitations." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 89: 835.
Stein, R.S. (2002). "Plastics Can Be Good for the Environment." NEACTJournal 21: 10-12.
Vesilind, P.A. (1997). Introduction to Environmental Engineering. Boston, MA: PWS Publishing.
Richard S. Stein
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