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Plastic and Climate Change are Connected

climate action

We can’t tackle climate change without changing our plastic habit.

Everywhere we look, there’s plastic. It’s in our stores, our workplaces, our schools, our homes, our cars. It’s on our body, in our water, and our food. Oh yeah, plastic is in our body too.

Plastic is cheap and convenient, but it comes at a price we can’t afford to keep paying anymore.

When we think about plastic, we often see it as a waste problem or an ocean pollution problem. While that’s true, the plastic crisis isn’t just about pollution — plastic is actively contributing to climate change too.

Globally, we’ve been buying a million plastic bottles a minute for years now. That number alone should tell us there’s a problem, but we don’t stop to think about it. Maybe it’s because all we see is what we as individuals do?

When we throw one plastic bottle away, it doesn’t seem like much. Unfortunately, millions of us are doing that every day with hundreds of different plastic things.

On a daily basis, we throw away plastic wrappers, plastic films, plastic containers, plastic bottles, plastic produce nets, and plastic bags.

Across the world, we use almost 1 million plastic bags and 1 million plastic cups every minute. It’s a frightening number.

Unlike other items we consume in the millions on a daily basis — newspaper, eggs, pizzas, bananas, cans of various items, plastic has a particularly high environmental price tag.

Plastic is…

  • Made from fossil fuels: Imagine that, our precious non-renewable energy turned into things we use for minutes before we trash them
  • Non-biodegradable: They’ll remain in the environment for hundreds of years
  • Notoriously worthless when it comes to recycling value. Virgin plastic is cheaper than recycled plastic
  • Weakened when recycled, so downcycling is a more accurate term to describe plastic recycling. It isn’t infinitely recyclable and quickly becomes waste
  • A source of carbon emission from cradle to grave
In other words, we’re using too much of a material that will continue to accumulate in the environment as waste because there’s no good way of recycling the ridiculously large amount of plastic waste we’re creating.

To see how plastic contributes to climate change, it’s best to follow the life cycle of plastic.

Getting the raw materials

The plastic’s journey begins with oil, gas, and coal extraction. Apart from being carbon-intensive activities, they’re also destructive to the environment.

One process used is fracking. In fracking, a well is drilled deep into the ground, until it hits the rock layer. Then the drill is turned 90 degrees and drilling continued. High-pressure injection of a mixture of sand, chemicals, and water follows to fracture the rock to release oil and gas.

Fracking requires a large amount of water, and carcinogenic chemicals used can leak and contaminate groundwater.

In the US, 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of CO2 are emitted each year just from extracting and transporting raw materials for plastics production.

In addition, companies clear large swaths of land for oil and gas development. This process not only releases carbon dioxide, but it also destroys carbon sinks as forests are cleared.

Refining and manufacturing

Turning oil and gas into plastic resins is a lengthy process that uses a lot of energy too. In 2015, 184.3 to 213 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent were released to make ethylene, a material used to make different types of plastic.

This is equivalent to carbon emissions from 45 million* cars in a year.

The resin is then transported to factories, where more energy is used to turn these resins into different products, packaging, and textiles. It’s baffling to think about all the work and energy put in to make bags, cutlery, and cups which we throw away after just one use.

End of life

When we’re done with plastic, 91% of it will end up incinerated, land-filled, or lost in the environment.

The recycling (more like downcycling) rate for plastic is only at 9%. The recycling process is such a burden that many countries try to ship their plastic wastes to poorer countries.

In 2015, the US alone emitted 5.9 million metric tons of CO2 from the incineration of plastic, releasing thousands of pollutants in the process.

That’s equivalent to carbon emissions from approximately 1.25 million* passenger cars in a year.

Even when land-filled, plastic waste poses a risk as they may leach contaminants into the groundwater. However, a well-constructed landfill can prevent that from happening.

*Calculated based on EPA’s figure of 4.63 metric tons CO2E/vehicle/year.

Plastic leaked into the environment continues to pollute

A bigger problem arises when plastic enters the environment.

In 2016, a study carried out by the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey and Company showed that the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic enters the ocean every minute.

Guess what, when exposed to sunlight, plastic will continue to release greenhouse gases as they break down into smaller pieces.

It doesn’t end there, plankton tend to mistake microplastics as food. Plankton are important microscopic creatures that form the base of the marine food chain and are super important to the health of the ocean.

A study found when phytoplankton (or microalgae) ingest microplastics, their chlorophyll content and ability to photosynthesize reduces, inhibiting their growth. Thus, their ability to remove carbon dioxide from the environment reduces.

We all know we need all the help we can get to remove CO2.

The plastic crisis is part of the climate crisis

Even with mounting evidence of plastic’s terrible footprint on the planet, our use of plastic is estimated to increase by 4 times by 2050.

Plastic is a great material. It’s lightweight, relatively durable, and versatile. It’s the way we’re overusing it that’s creating a problem.

Every time we use and throw away a plastic item, we should remember that it was once oil or gas. In addition, it has come a long way and emitted a lot of greenhouse gases to reach us, and it will continue to emit greenhouse gases after it leaves our hands.

To fight the climate crisis, we have to tackle the plastic crisis.


This article was originally published by Julie X,

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