17 October 2017 by Steve Eminton

NIC concern over carbon emissions from burning plastics

The National Infrastructure Commission has produced a draft document suggesting that waste plastic materials should not be burnt in energy from waste plants because of the carbon emissions caused.

Providing the government with “impartial, expert advice on major long-term infrastructure challenges”, the Commission is currently consulting on priorities for national infrastructure. Part of its work aims to help with a transition to a low carbon infrastructure which it says needs to continue and accelerate over the next couple of decades.


The NIC consultation document (click for link)

The references to waste plastics material come in its new consultation document “Congestion, Capacity, Carbon: Priorities for national infrastructure” available here: www.nic.org.uk

Greenhouse gas

On proposals for the waste sector, which form part of its work, it warns that “burning plastics in ‘energy from waste’ facilities increases greenhouse gas emissions, since plastics are carbon‑based.”

In contrast, says the consultation document – which was published on October 13 2017 – “burning degradable waste such as food and (natural) textiles reduces greenhouse gas emissions, since the carbon dioxide produced is less harmful than methane which is emitted if this is landfilled.”

The Commission is understood to favour recycling as the first option for dealing with waste plastics alongside the minimisation of waste production in the first place.

Continuing on its comments with regards to waste plastics, in the document it suggests that “Sequestrating waste plastics, where recycling is not an option, could reduce emissions compared to incineration but would need to be done in a way that avoided other harmful environmental impacts.”

It does not define what it means by sequestration of waste plastics but further research work by the Commission is to take place into other route options for waste plastics, besides recycling, under the “sequestrating” heading. This could involve processes to degrade the material.

EfW ‘sustainable’

The Commission also recognises that energy from waste infrastructure has provided a “more sustainable alternative to high-carbon forms of generation such as coal-fired power stations.”

However it cautions that as the carbon intensity of the energy grid falls, “efficiency improvements will be needed to maintain this advantage. These could include siting such plants where the heat, as well as the electricity, produced could be used, or separating plastics from the waste provided to such facilities and sequestrating it. Other technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, could also play a role, particularly if the biogas produced can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels for transport.”


Burning plastics in energy from waste facilities increases emissions, says the National Infrastructure Commission

The document, which is open for consultation responses until 12 January 2018, also comments on incentives to reduce packaging.

It states: “Managing demand and incentivising behaviour change are as important in reducing emissions from waste as from energy. A central element will be to ensure that the right incentives are in place for producers to reduce packaging. The ‘packaging recovery note’ system seeks to achieve this, but its success depends on supporting policies such as recycling targets and the landfill tax. Getting the right mix of these in place will be crucial to achieving more in this area.”

Reacting to the NIC consultation document, CIWM said that it gave it a “cautious endorsement”.


CIWM chief executive Dr Colin Church, said: “We are particularly pleased to see the commitment to say more soon on the issues of poor data beyond the household waste stream; without accurate data and a clear policy framework for capturing secondary resources, we will continue to have polarised debate about infrastructure needs in this sector.

“On the other hand,” Dr Church continues, “the NIC disappointingly doesn’t seem to have taken on board the role secondary raw materials – beyond energy – could play in supporting other industries, from aviation and construction to automotive and computing. Whilst making a strong case for improved energy efficiency, the role of better resource efficiency is only implicit in the report.”


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