The image shows plastic trash being burnt in the streets of Khatmandu
So, is it safe to burn plastic?
Well it never burns easily – it melts and bubbles. It will burn eventually but you have to keep heating it – click here if you want to know why. And, when you do set fire to plastic it gives off a terrible smell – at least in my experience, as a child, playing round the back of the derelict garages I hasten to add.
But is it bad for you? It could be lethal.
The smell according to the naked scientist could be anything. They say
It could be just a simple hydrocarbon, or it could contain cyanides, or PCB’s, or lots of other substances. Without knowing what the plastic was …..it would be difficult to know what are the likely volatiles it would create…. volatiles given off from plastics in house fires are a major cause of death.”
PCBs? – thats a dioxin and dioxins are nasty! Eeek!
So, to conclude, it depends on the plastic then?
Yes it is apparently safe to burn polythene – it can even be reprocessed as briquettes to make a very efficient fuel (ifenergy).
But it’s a big NO if its a halogenated plastics, i.e one of those made from chlorine or fluorine
Halogenated plastics include:
Chlorine based plastics:
Chlorinated polyethylene (CPE)
Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC)
Chlorosulfonated polyethylene (CSPE)
Polychloroprene (CR or chloroprene rubber, marketed under the brand name of Neoprene)
Fluorine based plastics:
Fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP)
Burning these plastics can release dioxins. Dioxins are unintentionally, but unavoidably produced during the manufacture of materials containing chlorine, including PVC and other chlorinated plastic feedstocks.
Dioxin is a known human carcinogen and the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested in laboratory animals. A characterization by the National Institute of Standards and Technology of cancer causing potential evaluated dioxin as over 10,000 times more potent than the next highest chemical (diethanol amine), half a million times more than arsenic and a million or more times greater than all others.
The World Health Organization said
“Once dioxins have entered the environment or body, they are there to stay due to their uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to their rock-solid chemical stability.”
That is because dioxins are classed as one of the persistant organic pollutants, POPs, also known as as PBTs (Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic) or TOMPs (Toxic Organic Micro Pollutants.)
POPs are a small set of toxic chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals. They are extremely toxic and cause all manner of illnesses. You can find out more about POPS here
The Uk Government states on their website
Burning plastic, rubber or painted materials creates poisonous fumes and can have damaging health effects for people who have asthmatic or heart conditions.
This is covered under the Environmental Protection Act 1990
And in America Burn barrels have this to say… “Burning trash in a 55 gallon drum or in just a pile, often in the backyard, is a common method of solid waste disposal in some rural areas. Surveys have revealed between 25 and 50 percent of rural residences and farms may do backyard burning.
Backyard burning is by definition “uncontrolled” burning and results in very high levels of toxic chemicals emitted in the smoke. Compared to municipal incinerators it takes place at much lower temperatures, with virtually no combustion air control, and with none of the very expensive high-tech pollution filtering apparatus required before the incinerator stack.
Very high levels of toxic chemicals and particulates are present in the smoke from open burning of waste. These may cause acute respiratory and other health problems in those breathing the smoke. Burning plastics can be especially problematic, with PVC plastic in particular contributing to high emissions of dioxin.
Current dioxin levels in Americans, due to consumption of dairy and meat, are high enough to add a significant cancer risk, as well as other serious health risks.
SO, IN CONCLUSION, don’t burn plastic on open fires unless you know exactly what it is made up of.
While there are some plastics that are supposed to be safe to burn, personally I won’t be burning plastic on my bonfire.
If you have been sniffing burning plastic fumes
…and are now feeling worried, find out what kind of plastic it was and then track down the Material Safety Data Sheet. This will tell you everything you need to know.
Is it safe to burn plastic in my local waste disposal plant incinerator?
It is claimed that all plastics can be burnt safely in the modern industrial incinerators – but only those built to high specifications.
Opinions vary wildly as to wether this is the case with environmentalists saying we are poisoning the very air that we breathe.
Many of these plants generate electricity from the heat produced so in effect the plastic is recycled.
The resulting ash from incineration plants has to be disposed of and so presnets yet another waste disposal challenge.