How does plastic contribute to climate change?Wiebke Venter
How does plastic contribute to climate change?
As a family, we realised how much plastic we were actually using every day. It became a ‘natural’ part of our lives. Plastic packaging is almost everywhere: in the kitchen, the bedroom and the bathroom, to name but a few. Somehow, we always knew that plastic isn´t good for the environment.
To date, mankind has produced over 8 billion tons of plastic. Once used, most of the plastic can’t be recycled and will end up in landfills and in our oceans. When we are out and about – around Cape Town or worldwide – we see so much waste lying around on the beaches, in the desert and the forests, next to the streets and walking paths.
It is not only very ugly look at, harms our environment, kills animals or accumulates in our bodies – it has a direct influence on climate change.
What is climate change?
Global warming is a natural process. When the sun´s energy reaches the atmosphere, some of it is being reflected back to space and the rest is absorbed and re-radiated by its natural content of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane or nitrous oxides. The absorbed energy warms the atmosphere and the surface of Earth and makes life possible. Without this so-called greenhouse effect, the temperature on the Earth would be only -18 °C.
If greenhouse gasses increase, the atmosphere is gets hotter and hotter and results in local, regional and global climate changes. Climate change can result from natural processes and factors but more recently from human activities through our emission of greenhouse gases through:
- Coal, oil and gas burning causes CO2 and nitrous oxides
- Deforestation set the CO2 stored in trees free
- Increased livestock as they emit high amounts of Methane through their digestion.
Plastic´s influence on climate change
At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threatens the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C. With the petrochemical and plastic industries planning a massive expansion in production, the problem is on track to get much worse. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.
Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle:
Extraction and Transport
The extraction and transport of fossil fuels for plastic production produces significant greenhouse gasses. Sources include direct emissions, like methane leakage and flaring, emissions from fuel combustion and energy consumption in the process of drilling for oil or gas, and emissions caused by land disturbance when forests and fields are cleared for well pads and pipelines.
Refining and Manufacture
Plastic refining is among the most greenhouse gas intensive industries in the manufacturing sector—and the fastest growing. The manufacture of plastic is both energy and emissions intensive in its own right, producing significant emissions through the cracking of alkanes into olefins, the polymerization and plasticization of olefins into plastic resins, and other chemical refining processes.
Plastic is primarily landfilled, recycled, or incinerated—each of which produces varying amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Landfilling emits the least greenhouse gases on an absolute level, although it presents significant other risks. Recycling has a moderate emissions profile but displaces new virgin plastic on the market, making it advantageous from an emissions perspective. Incineration leads to extremely high emissions and is the primary driver of emissions from plastic waste management. Globally, the use of incineration in plastic waste management is poised to grow dramatically in the coming decades.
Plastic in the Environment
Plastic that is unmanaged ends up in the environment, where it continues to have climate impacts as it degrades. Efforts to quantify those emissions are still in the early stages, but a first-of-its-kind study from Sarah-Jeanne Royer and her team demonstrates that plastic at the ocean’s surface continually releases methane and other greenhouse gases, and that these emissions increase as the plastic breaks down further. Current estimates address only the 1% of plastic at the ocean’s surface. Emissions from the 99% of plastic that lies below the ocean’s surface cannot yet be estimated with precision. Significantly, Royer’s research showed that plastic on the coastlines, riverbanks, and landscapes releases greenhouse gases at an even higher rate. Microplastic in the oceans may also interfere with the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide. Earth’s oceans have absorbed 20-40 percent of all anthropogenic carbon emitted since the dawn of the industrial era. Microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton) play a critical role in the biological carbon pump that captures carbon at the ocean’s surface and transports it into the deep oceans, preventing it from re-entering the atmosphere. Around the world, these plankton are being contaminated with microplastic. Laboratory experiments suggest this plastic pollution can reduce the ability of phytoplankton to fix carbon through photosynthesis. They also suggest that plastic pollution can reduce the metabolic rates, reproductive success, and survival of zooplankton that transfer the carbon to the deep ocean. Research into these impacts is still in its infancy, but early indications that plastic pollution may interfere with the largest natural carbon sink on the planet should be cause for immediate attention and serious concern.
Climate Change and its consequences
Climate change has a huge negative impact on our environment and our society. If we cannot stop it, climate change results in extreme weather events and catastrophes like increased heat resulting in rising seas and melting ice, drought, heavy rainfalls with flooding and erosion as well as declining water supplies and reduced agricultural yields. It is not only animal habitats that are in danger, but human health issues and hunger as well.
On www.climateclock.world you can track the time we have left at current rates of emission until we cannot limit global warming to 1,5 °C above pre-industrial levels anymore and climate change consequences are unstoppable. To date we have less than 7 years left! You will also find a tracking of the growing percentage of the world´s energy currently supplied from renewable sources. This is our lifeline. Simply put, we need to get the lifeline to 100 % before our deadline reaches 0.
Even if big companies and governments have the power to quickly change the development of climate change, every purchase and decision that you make is a vote for or against our future. It is on each and every one of us to contribute and do the best that they can to stop climate change.
If you feel that your part can be using a lot less plastic, you are welcome to check our blog and recommendations side for a lot of tips and tricks as well as scroll through our shops for plastic free alternatives for your plastic conscious life!