Plastic Pollution: Turning a Problem into a Solution

When it comes to plastic pollution, it turns out there is a list of worst offenders. According to new research, just 10 rivers — eight of them in Asia — are responsible for up to 95% of the plastics choking the world’s oceans. Famed waterways like the Yangtze in China and the Ganges in India are among those contributing an estimated 410,000 to 4 million tons each year to the roughly 8 million tons of plastic waste that ends up in Earth’s oceans on an annual basis.

The discoveries come at a time when the issue of plastic pollution is becoming increasingly urgent, with discarded plastic floating for decades without decomposing. Other pieces end up glomming on to floating junkyards like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has recently become the subject of a sarcastic online campaign to recognize it as an official country. Still more breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are then ingested by fish and other marine species, ending up on our dinner plates. Most worryingly of all, a recent study found that plastic waste also contaminates the vast majority of the water we drink.

With these kinds of frightening findings continuing to accrue, lawmakers, NGOs and even corporations are finally taking action, from improving recycling systems in Southeast Asia to protecting marine habitats. And while this is all well and good, to truly make an impact on plastic pollution — as well as energy security, another critical environmental challenge in Asia — policymakers must expand their portfolio of solutions to include waste-to-energy as well as other novel approaches.

Many promising new initiatives were announced at the EU-backed Our Ocean 2017 conference in Malta, where the Ocean Conservancy, in partnership with industry partners like Procter & Gamble, announced a $150 million plan to fund collection, recycling and waste management solutions in Southeast Asia. The initiative aims to nip plastic pollution in the bud, given that nearly half of the plastic debris choking our oceans comes from only a handful of rapidly developing Asian countries. At the same conference, Austrian polyolefin manufacturer Borealis AG launched a new $5-million project to improve waste management systems in Southeast Asia.

The industry-backed initiatives come on top of longstanding campaigns by NGOs like National Geographic’s Pristine Seas program, which aims to build momentum to protect endangered ecosystems and is supported by a number of non-profits active in maritime protection, such as the Philip Stephenson Foundation and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Celebrity activist-backed initiatives, such as Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 documentary, have also recently directed public attention to plastic pollution and other environmental issues.

These sorts of initiatives should indeed be welcomed. But at a time when 90% of the world’s plastic inventory is still not recycled because of insufficient infrastructure capacity, policymakers, NGOs and activists should also consider adding another weapon to their arsenal — waste-to-energy, where trash is burned and then is converted to electrical power by turning heated water into steam. Given that many countries in the Asia Pacific region are grappling with both plastic waste and energy shortages, waste-to-energy would be an elegant way to solve both issues simultaneously.

For instance, Australia has been facing the threat of repeated blackouts as the government has introduced subsidies for renewable energies without investing sufficiently in sources of backup power. The country is also grappling with thousands of tons of plastic off its coasts, even as the world’s top market for recyclable plastics, China, has now erected barriers to imports of unprocessed scrap materials. This is no small development: Around 70% of the world’s plastic waste used to end up in China.

Of course critics might charge that incineration is polluting and that all refuse should be recycled. But incineration methods have evolved considerably over the years, and today’s technology — in contrast with visions of smoke-belching bonfires of decades past — emits much lower levels of pollutants. What’s more, a study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that waste-to-energy actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions by slashing the methane emissions that come from landfills. Since methane is much more potent than CO2, the process is one the only technology that actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions in lifecycle terms.

This does not mean that reducing, recycling and removing excess plastic waste should not be the long-term goal. But developing perfectly circular recycling systems for plastic materials is highly complex and might generate higher environmental impact in the long term — especially given plastics’ lengthy shelf life. In the meantime, why not generate energy from plastic that is unlikely to be reprocessed and susceptible to being thrown into the nearest gutter or trash pile?

Such an approach could help address the problem of power shortages not only in Australia but especially in developing South Asian nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, where demand for energy has been increasing faster than governments can meet citizens’ needs. And while waste-to-energy is not a carbon-free solution, it is still preferable to the outdated coal plants that are running in many of these countries. We also must not underestimate the value of completely removing waste from our rivers, oceans and landfills while in turn reducing methane emissions from landfills, which contributes far more to climate change than CO2.