The plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States. In fact, the US hosts half of the world’s top fifty plastics manufacturing companies. Sales in 2014 were over $961 billion, with the US holding a sizable trade surplus in plastics. Demand continues to rise, with consumption between 2011 and 2012 going up 5.7 percent.
Since its basic component is mineral oil, plastic is considered a petrochemical. Some of the largest plastics manufacturers are household names in the US, including Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemicals, and Chevron Phillips.
In developed countries like the US, a third of plastics goes into packaging. Another third is used in buildings, such as pipes, plumbing, and vinyl siding. Other uses include toys, furniture, cars, and medical equipment, among other things.
Thanks to the fracking boom, the US is now one of the cheapest places in the world to manufacture plastics. The chemical industry plans to spend $185 billion in the next few years to expand its capacity. Four new plastics plants were slated to begin operations in the US in 2017.
At the same time, the US’ main export to China is—or has been—trash, including plastic trash. It is a multi-billion dollar industry. Since the 1980’s China has been the world’s largest importer of waste. By 2012 56% of global exported plastic waste ended up in China, but lack of oversight led to major environmental and health problems. Also, China’s middle class has started discarding enough waste so that the Chinese no longer need imported garbage. So, as of January 1, 2018, China has imposed a ban on imported waste.
According to the New York Times of January 11, 2018, “Plastics Pile Up as China Refuses to Take the West’s Recycling.” According to the article, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Britain, and Hong Kong have reported backups in their waste. Steve Frank, of Pioneer Recycling in Oregon is looking to export to Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In Britain, Jacqueline O’Donovan of O’Donovan Waste Disposal also exports and reports huge bottlenecks. China’s ban covers 24 kinds of solid waste and sets new limits on impurities. China notified the WTO last year it would ban some imports because of contaminants, including hazardous materials.
Germany leads the world in recycling, at 70%. Americans generate 4.4 pounds per person per day of trash, and generate the most waste in the world, but Americans only recycle 34% of waste and only 9.5% of plastic. Fifteen percent is burned for electricity and/or heat. About one-third is exported, and until the ban began, half of that went to China. The remainder goes to landfill. It is estimated that it takes 500 years for plastic to break down. As it does, it leaches toxic components into the ground. But many US landfill sites are old and fast reaching capacity.
China has the highest carbon emissions in the world, as of 2011, but it also has the largest population. The United States (third in population), Russia and India (second in population) are the next largest carbon emitters. Emissions have grown faster than population since 1950. Since 2000, emissions have grown twice as fast as population.
China, which has a longstanding problem with pollution, is making comprehensive efforts to improve its air and water quality. Beijing has started promoting green technology, including waste-to-energy incineration. With WTE, China’s stated priority is trash disposal rather than energy production.
Waste-to-energy (WTE) is a process by which trash is burned to generate electricity, steam, or both. According to Wikipedia, the first waste incinerator was built in the United Kingdom in 1874. The first in the US came on line in 1885 on Governor’s Island, New York. Burning reduces original waste volume by 90-95%. The plants produce electric efficiencies of 14-28%. Or, water is boiled to power steam generators. Co-generation can increase efficiency to 80%.
WTE must meet strict emission requirements for nitrous oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), heavy metals and dioxins, based on worldwide emissions standards set by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an inter-governmental economic organization with 35 member countries, founded in 1961.
The plants may emit low levels of particulates, heavy metals, trace dioxin, and acid gas. There’s also toxic fly ash (which requires hazardous waste disposal installation) and incinerator bottom ash, which must be reused properly. Lime scrubbers reduce acid gas. Electrostatic precipitators, fabric filters, reactors and catalysts are also used. In WTE, filters capture mercury and lead. However, even controls can’t eliminate all the dioxin, according to some claimants.
Proponents say the plants emit the same amount of nitrous oxide as coal-fired plants and have the same requirements, but WTE plants emit fewer particulates than coal.
Some European countries burn half of their waste. Cost for the facilities can be prohibitive, at up to $1 billion. There are 87 operational WTE facilities in the US, 431 in Europe, and 330-439 in China, depending on the internet source.* Japan is the biggest user of WTE in the world. It burns 40 million tons of municipal solid waste annually.
Because Germans generate so little waste, the country’s WTE plants lack enough trash to supply its electricity generators. It imports trash from the UK, Italy, and Switzerland. Sweden imports trash, too.
The largest waste-to-energy plant in the world is currently under construction in Shenzhen, China, but protesters have succeeded in getting a delay in the project. Babcock and Wilcox Voland of Denmark has the $40 million contract to design a 168 megawatt boiler that will consume 5600 tons/day of trash. The roof is to be covered with solar panels. It is expected to recover 95% of water and 90% of metals, with slag recycled as gravel. Flue gas is expected to be 95-99% clean. An even larger WTE plant is being planned in Dubai, capital of the United Arab Emirates, with construction scheduled to begin later in 2018. It is projected to produce 185 megawatts.
The EPA says the US sent 33.66 million tons of waste for conversion to energy in 2013. Fifty percent of facilities are privately owned, with Covanta Energy and Wheelabrator Labs the largest. Most produce electricity only, and 25% produce electricity and stream. A handful produce only steam. Twelve states have operating WTE plants. Florida has the most, at twelve, then New York (10), Massachusetts (7), Pennsylvania and Connecticut (6 each), Virginia and Delaware (5 each). California, Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine have three.
The largest WTE facilities in the US produce over 90 megawatts of electricity and consume around 3000 tons/day of waste. They each serve around one million people.
In the US, the first WTE plant in 20 years opened in Florida in 2015. It consumes 3000 tons/day of waste and cost $670 million. The Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility in West Palm Beach, Florida is publicly owned by the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach, County and operated by Babcock and Wilcox, an international firm out of Denmark. It is a mass burn facility and produces 95 megawatts. Advocates stress the idea that waste is a resource.
However, the new plant is not getting the loads it expected. The county already had a WTE plant, in operation since 1989. There was a fear that landfill would reach capacity around 2022-2023, so the new plant received little public resistance. There are substantial controls on emissions. Emission requirements allow for 110 pounds of mercury/year. The price of the electricity is competitive. They test for the toxicity of the ash.
An argument against incinerators is that they compete with recycling. Recycling has increased three-fold over the 1980s. Still, it’s cheaper to make new paper than to recycle, and China’s new ban on trash imports includes mixed paper.
There is a $1 billion facility planned for Baltimore, but it is meeting with public resistance. Opponents object to emissions so close to a school and blame WTE facilities in Detroit and Harrisburg, PA for those cities’ bankruptcies. However, WTE industry representatives claim that Harrisburg continued to refinance its facility and to pull cash out for the general fund. The cost went from $15 to $240 million. The plant sold for $130 million.
The trajectory of plastics from production to disposal presents a growing problem worldwide, including in the oceans, where huge “gyres,” of floating debris have formed in five separate locations. The best known is the “Great Pacific Garbage Dump,” which some say is at least the size of Texas. If there were ever an industry looking for jobs, the pollution control industry would be one of them.
* A problem with internet research is that data is often old, sometimes without posted dates. Some is promotional (so possibly biased), often superficial, and hard to verity.
Thank you for posting this research. A great “heads up” summary kind of article and there’s always much to be learned, or much to follow up on, from these.
Thanks, Sha’Tara. An advantage of posting articles like this is I get good feedback and information from simpatico readers. I was astounded at how proud the plastics industry of its growth. I like plastic, too, for certain things, but could survive easily with a lot less of it.
Katharine, thanks for your comprehensive and informative post on the plastic industry. Reducing our consumption of plastic goods won’t be easy while the petrochemical industry gears up to increase plastic production.
For the first time at the restaurant where our writers’ critique group meets monthly, I requested “no plastic straw” with my glass of water. “We’ve got to reduce our plastic waste,” I told the puzzled waiter.
I’ve never liked straws, and I was surprised so many of them have ended up on beaches. It does seem you have to startle people into awareness. Maybe you got that waiter thinking. You set a good example. I hope your whole writers’ group heard.
Thanks for reading and for your comment.
Very interesting. I never really thought about other countries paying to import trash although I was aware that at times the US exports trash.
I’ve read elsewhere that trash is the US’ primary export. I couldn’t find the source again, so didn’t include it in the article, but will keep looking.
Trash is truly a “growth” industry, sad to say.
That is sad.
Truly sad. People in some third world countries live off scavenging in garbage dumps.
We use curbside pickup each week for groceries. I swear walmart needs to do something about the amount of grocery bags. I know in other parts of the country they have banned the plastic grocery (type) bags, but here in Coastal Georgia… nope.
Sadly what’s the alternative? – Paper That too is a major problem. We shouldn’t give up one and take on another.
For years, I’ve shopped with canvas bags. It limits what I buy to what I can carry. It also forces me to avoid heavily packaged items, since they don’t fit in the canvas bags (or on my shelves). Since I only shop for one, and have to prepare whatever I buy, this keeps my grocery bill within bounds.
I went through a spell of making my own bags and still think this would be a great cottage business for anyone who likes to sew.