Plastic Pollution and Climate Change
Guest post by: Lilly Platt
Plastic Pollution is a huge problem for today’s oceans and water systems.
It’s one of the most common materials in our economy and amongst the biggest polluters on Earth. It’s found everywhere in the form of plastic bottles, bags, food packaging, clothing, and car parts, etc.
Plastic is durable and lasts forever. However, what doesn’t get attention is how plastic pollution affects climate change.
Nearly all plastic is made from materials like ethylene and propylene which are made from fossil fuels (mostly oil and gas). The process of extracting and transporting those fuels and then manufacturing plastic creates billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases.
Plastic is one of the most persistent pollutants on Earth. It’s made to last, and it does, often for 400 years or more. And at every step in its lifecycle, from its production to its refining and the way it is managed as a waste product – even long after it has been thrown away – plastic creates greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to the warming of our world.
At least 95% of the world’s growing production of plastics – about 100 million tonnes annually – is discarded after a single use, which leaves a huge amount to be disposed of. Less than 12% is recycled, which leaves a staggering amount to be disposed of in landfills or incinerated. At these levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability to keep global temperature rise below 1.5C.
Additionally, the boom in fracking has made oil prices drop, and cheap oil makes for a rise in plastic productions worldwide. The world’s excessive plastic use threatens attempts to meet the Paris climate agreement.
A report by the Centre for International Environmental Law in May 2019 stated that the impact of plastic production on the world’s climate in the last year will be the same as the output of 189 coal-fired power stations. By 2050, when plastic production is expected to have tripled, it will be as much as what 615 power stations emit.
A shocking fact: At least eight million tonnes of discarded plastic enters our oceans each year. Not surprisingly, it’s projected that plastic pollution at sea will double by 2030. Plastic has even been found in the deepest place on Earth, in the Mariana Trench, nearly 11 kilometres below sea level, and also on Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, at almost nine kilometers above.
Plastic leaves a deadly legacy in our oceans, which provide the largest natural carbon sink for greenhouse gases. It literally chokes and smothers a host of marine animals and habitats and can take hundreds of years to break down.
Sunlight and heat cause the plastic to release powerful greenhouse gases, leading to an alarming feedback loop. As our climate changes, and the planet gets hotter, the plastic breaks down into more methane and ethylene, increasing the rate of climate change, and so continuing the cycle. As plastic breaks down into smaller particles (known as micro plastics) they are eaten by marine animals, including plankton. And why should we care about plankton?
These tiny powerhouses play a crucial role in taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water and isolating and storing it in deep ocean sinks. Although the full effects of this are still being studied, when micro plastics threaten plankton populations, more carbon will re-enter the waters and the atmosphere.
Given that our oceans have successfully absorbed between 30-50% of atmospheric carbon produced since the start of the industrial age, it’s easy to see just what’s at stake. This leads us back to the plastic consumption on land that is driving this growing plastic pollution crisis.
The more plastic we make, the more fossil fuels we need, the more we affect climate change. The growth in production of single-use plastic jumped from two million tonnes in the 1950s to 359 million tonnes in 2019. At the end of 2019, two-thirds was released into the environment and remains there.
The only way we can now address the problem is to curb the production of plastic, especially of the single-use variety, and to increase recycling.
Reducing plastic use and plastic waste is the way forward. Governments need to make policies and laws that push industry to improve plastic management and limit the impact on the environment. This is critical if we are to begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change and help to protect our marine environments.
It’s time to put single-use plastic under wraps and begin re-imagining a future without it.