eli5 Why can’t we burn plastics all of our plastics?

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I am assuming it adds more carbon and pollution to the atmosphere, but aren’t cars and cargo ships doing the same thing? If that’s the case why can’t we just burn it instead of dumping it in the ocean? Is dumping it into the sea really that much of a better option? Why is it better to pollute the sea with large clumps of plastic?

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Burning plastic is generally horrible for human health in the area. On small scales, plastic is burned along with organic materials in trash pits and it’s just a little noxious. On an industrial scale, the plastic trash of one city being burned every day would make living in that city hell on earth. Fairly sure that the pollutants would disperse with the winds and have horrible health effects downwind for hundreds of miles.

Some waste to energy plants *do* burn plastic, because plastic burns hotter than the typical waste they process. Contrary to what you might expect, it makes the process cleaner, since the higher temperature destroys more of the toxic chemicals.

That said, you have some incorrect assumptions in your question.

> but aren’t cars and cargo ships doing the same thing?

You don’t do something you know is wrong just because you see someone else doing it, even if they’re doing it on a much larger scale. This is a basic rule of life most of us are taught from a very young age.

> why can’t we just burn it instead of dumping it in the ocean?

We don’t dump it in the ocean. The plastic in the ocean got there mainly through careless inattention or accident, it was not intentional for the most part.

> Why is it better to pollute the sea with large clumps of plastic?

It’s not. We’re generally trying to *stop* plastic from getting in the ocean while recycling plastic we can, and *cleanly* burning the stuff we can’t.

We can. And in many places in Europe we do this. We incinerate and we clean the exhaust gasses. The exhaust will be cleaner than that of a modern diesel car. (I.E Amager Bakke in Denmark, or the soon to be complete Korvenmäen jätteenpolttolaitos in Finland. Etc.)

Now incineration is good way to turn plastic waste in to energy. But it isn’t the only way. We can use pyrolysis (Destructive distillation with heat) to turn them back in to monomers and and oligomers. Although it is currently used to turn waste plastic in to variety of solid, gas and liquid fuels, these can then be used in their respective engines. Ship engine would be a prime case for this, since those engines when they are at operational pressure burn anything that is more liquid than asphalt.

But here is a thing tho. Incinerating plastic and cleaning the exhaust takes money, building and running the plant is not cheap. Not many want to do this, especially if they got plenty of land they can pollute carefree. Pyrolysis is a complicated process and to get benefit of it you need to use all the products of it.

We have the technology to safely dispose waste plastic in a way that it will not even have a chance degrade and pollute out environment. But this will not solve the plastic problem, to solve that we need to simply make and use less plastic.

Burning plastic releases toxic chemicals. It takes special, expensive, equipment to clean the toxins out of the exhaust. Plastic isn’t dumped in the ocean. It gets in the ocean due to attempts to recycle it which don’t work. Plastic isn’t recyclable.