Can plastic keep us warm?
What happens to plastic at the end of its life? Where do plastics go after being deposited in a yellow container? Can used up plastic still bring us value?
Landfills: an age-old tradition
In Czech Republic, up to 40% of plastic waste ends up in landfills. Landfills are the oldest way to “dispose” of our trash. Indeed the technology is quite simple- even our ancient ancestors gathered waste in one place, sometimes buried it underground. Landfills have come a long way since those days, yet the principle remains the same. And although it could be said that landfills are somewhat of a tradition, their future doesn’t look all that bright. The realization that landfilling brings no added value but rather actively harms the environments, has resulted in developed countries steadily getting rid of these technological relics. Some countries, such as Germany or Sweden, have banned landfills for several years now. This trend is also picking up in Czech, where the anti-landfill law should come into effect by 2030.
But what will we do with the waste we landfill, once we put an end to these “depositories” for good?
My inner idealist would say that we will dramatically lower the amount of waste we produce and the little bit that does get created will get dutifully recycled. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be so simple.
The growing world population and consumer behaviors suggest that waste production will keep rising and recycling alone won’t save us. The recycling process requires a notable amount of resources such as water, energy and money and the resulting product quality is often questionable. How can we best get rid of hard to recycle waste material in a way that will still bring some value?
Let’s take a quick look back at the already mentioned plastics. It’s not for nothing that plastics have become omnipresent in our lives. This material has many advantages - it’s light, durable, malleable and economically beneficial to produce. But plastic has one more secret- hidden inside its chemical bonds lies a significant amount of energy. And that’s exactly what dirty, low-quality, degraded plastic waste can still give us.
Waste to Energy
We use energy pretty much daily to heat water for a shower, make coffee or wash our hands. Doing laundry often requires hot water and in the winter we’re happy to turn the heat on at home. Before we can use energy, however, it has to be created somewhere. One such place is ZEVO Malešice. ZEVO is short for Waste to Energy Plant (Zařízení na energetické využití odpadů). Sometimes it’s also referred to as an incinerator, a term that for many tends to have a negative connotation. We might get the idea that it’s an outdated technology that only does damage to our environment. But the reality is a bit different.
Michael Londesborough invited ZEVO Malešice director Aleš Bláha to “Let’s talk about it” to find out the real deal.
What are the advantages of incineration over landfilling our waste? Is it really safe to burn plastic materials? Can waste to energy plants be a valuable component of a circular economy? And what about the costs?