By 2050, converting plastic waste into energy will result in more carbon dioxide emissions than burning fossil fuels, a study by researchers in South Korea has projected. Their findings show plastic waste-to-energy conversion should be a far larger concern with regards to global heating than it currently is.

Plastic waste is increasing as the worldwide demand for plastic products increases. Currently, a portion of this waste is disposed of through various energy-generating methods, including incineration, pyrolysis and gasification, to ease what ends up in landfills. In many places, municipal solid waste, which includes plastics, is classified as a renewable energy source. However, a study on the long-term environmental impact of these treatment methods has been lacking.

Now, Seong-kyun Im, of Korea University, and colleagues, have modelled a range of different plastic waste treatment methods. It shows that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with generating electricity from plastic waste should not be ignored. As demand for plastics continues to increase so will the requirement dealing with the associated waste, resulting in even higher emissions. The study also highlights the need to develop efficient carbon separation, capture and storage technologies, if we are to offset this growing contributor to climate change.