If Plastic Were A Country...Plastic and Climate Change
Climate change is in the news these days, but what does it have to do with plastic? According to Eirik Lindebjerg, Global Plastics Policy Manager at World Wildlife Fund, “If plastic were a country, it would be the fifth highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Using plastics is hazardous to health and to the environment. Across its lifecycle, plastic is responsible for generating 1.8 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.”
Plastics are derived from fossil fuels. The extraction of oil, coal and gas in a refinery like the one pictured above produces carbon dioxide which is the major cause of global warming. Transportation, land disturbance and clearcutting for pipelines, including clear cutting a percentage of forest lands which are needed to produce oxygen, impact climate change as well. This all adds up to oxygen-producing lands reduced and carbon dioxide increased by plastic production. Plastic refining such as producing ethylene for polyethylene plastics is also greenhouse-gas producing and is on the increase. It is projected to expand by 34% between 2015 and 2030.
According to Beyond Plastics, in 2021 just 5% of plastic was recycled, 85% was landfilled or ended up in the environment, and the remaining 10% was burned. When we incinerate plastic guess what...it becomes a significant source of air pollution. When plastic is burned in open burning facilities in many parts of the world, aside from the toxic pollution it causes, it creates what is known as black carbon which has a global warming potential up to 5,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. Based upon projections from the World Energy Council, if plastic production and incineration increase as expected, greenhouse gas emissions will increase 49 million metric tons by 2030 and 91 million metric tons by 2050.
Many plastics end up in the ocean. Although we live in the middle of the country far from the ocean, the plastic that is discarded locally can travel in area streams and rivers to eventually end up in the ocean. As this plastic waste breaks down in the ocean, it releases greenhouse gases. The danger to the animals and plants that exist in watery ocean gyres (garbage patches) is real, but we now know that plastic exposed to sunlight and heat releases methane and ethylene. Plastic is now being broken down into smaller pieces (microplastics) at an ever-increasing rate.
We also know that microplastics affect the ability of the microorganisms to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. At least half of Earth’s oxygen comes from the ocean and is mostly produced by plankton. These tiny organisms capture carbon through photosynthesis making our oceans a vitally important carbon sink. Microplastics affect the ability of the plankton to multiply and be able to capture carbon, thereby accelerating the inability of the ocean to produce oxygen. And we need oxygen to survive. Everything on the planet needs oxygen, so the plastic degeneration in the ocean inhibits our planet’s ability to slow down climate change.
According to Claire Arkin, Communications Actions Coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a global network aiming to reduce pollution and eliminate waste incineration, “We can’t recycle our way out of this. Too much single-use plastic is being produced and consumed.”
Clearly, the path we are on is not sustainable. Every one of us is in charge of our own buying habits. Refuse plastic wherever possible. The GOOD NEWS is there ARE alternatives. Now is the time to make that change. It may feel like our individual efforts don’t make a significant impact, but when we join together in our goal of eliminating plastic, we can make a big difference.
Sources: World Economic Forum, January 2022
Yale Climate Connections Climate Science, Brooke Bauman, August 20, 2019