Written by: Natalia Brown
Information about the detrimental effects of plastic waste has certainly captivated global attention. Individuals across the globe are increasingly seeking plastic-free alternatives and striving for more sustainable waste management in their communities. In fact, the threats posed by the plastic pollution crisis are widely recognized alongside the implications of climate change; however, the foundational links between these two major areas of concern are often overlooked or unrecognized.
Emission of excessive heat-trapping greenhouse gases is the primary driving force exacerbating the progression of climate change today. Water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone gas possess the unique ability to absorb infrared radiation and re-radiate it back to Earth’s surface—producing a warming “greenhouse” effect. According to a report released by the Center for International Environmental Law earlier this year, greenhouse gas emissions from the lifecycle of plastics significantly threaten our ability to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C. By 2050, plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions may surpass 56 gigatons—representing 10-13 percent of the remaining carbon budget.
When we think about the environmental effects of plastic, it’s easy to subconsciously focus on its contribution to our global waste footprint and potential to end up as marine debris. However, it is equally important to recognize that every piece of plastic is derived from fossil fuels and emits excess greenhouse gases throughout each phase of its lifecycle.
Plastic production starts off with fossil fuel extraction, refining, and transport. This carbon-intensive process may consist of surface or underground mining for coal, or drilling wells used for pumping sand, water, or chemicals to release gas and oil. These processes generate direct emissions via methane leaks, fuel combustion, and the energy consumption required to power the invasive technologies. Once the fuel stocks are extracted, they must be transported for the next phase of their lifecycle. This is achieved using pipelines, often underground, which require extensive clearing of any surrounding trees. Compared to the others, this first lifecycle phase releases the most carbon emissions while ridding the surrounding environment of its natural carbon-capturing assets.
The Center for International Environmental Law’s report also labels plastic refinement among the most profound greenhouse gas emitting industries in the manufacturing sector. Initial refining, polymerization, and plasticization are tremendously energy-intensive and have contributed over 200 million tons of carbon dioxide to our Earth’s atmosphere annually.
According to Ivy Schlegel, a senior research specialist with Greenpeace USA; “despite the increasing scientific understanding of the irreversible damage plastic can cause to our environment and communities, plastic production is projected to dramatically increase in the coming years.”
In fact, developments in fracking techniques in the shale regions of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have fueled a natural gas boom that enables the growth of plastic production. The rise of cracker plants in the US Midwest poses a major environmental burden that will continue contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and disproportionately pose risks to the health and well-being of surrounding communities by exacerbating the development of atmospheric smog. This industrialization is primarily driven by the deeply vested public officials and corporate elites who strategically locate extractive operations in historically marginalized communities.
Once plastic products are used and discarded; they are sent to landfill, recycled, or incinerated—each of which also produces greenhouse gas emissions.
→ Sending plastic waste directly to landfill is believed to contribute the least greenhouse gases on an absolute level. However, this waste management strategy poses several threats to the water quality, air quality, and composition of surrounding soil.
→ Alternatively, recycling has a moderate emissions profile but displaces new virgin plastic on the market. This shortcut in the lifecycle of plastic products makes it an advantageous waste management strategy from an overall emissions perspective. Unfortunately, less than 10 percent of the millions of tons of plastic waste generated are effectively recycled in the U.S.
→ Nearly 60 percent of the plastic waste generated in the United States is incinerated. This process of burning plastics is linked to very high greenhouse gas emissions and the release of sulfur dioxide, highly toxic dioxins, furans, heavy metals, and potentially carcinogenic particulate matter. Since most waste generated in developed countries is shipped overseas, these grave consequences disproportionately impact marginalized communities in the Global South.
“To solve the plastic pollution crisis, companies need to rethink how products are delivered to consumers and invest significantly in reusable and refillable delivery systems,” Schlegel said.
According to statistics from IHS Markit, international pressure from consumers who value sustainability is listed among the most concerning disruptors for the plastics industry. A significant reduction in the growing demand for plastics could have a pronounced impact on refiners, in particular, who have already been faced with declining demand for transportation fuels due to increasing fuel efficiency standards. The power of the consumer cannot be understated; our investments (no matter how small) collectively impact the entire petrochemical value chain!
Are you ready to break free from plastic and take action to combat the climate crisis?
Survey the single-use plastics you are currently using. Your daily routine is likely loaded with plastic packaged products: shopping bags, beverage rings and bottled, sandwich and snack bags, clam-shell containers, styrofoam takeout boxes, and/or plastic cling wrap.
Recent studies have overwhelming proven that greenhouse gases are released during plastic production, and more recently that they continue to be released as they degrade. Use this information as motivation to seek out alternatives for the single-use plastics you identified in your life—shifting to reusable items, biodegradable packaging, or simply going package-free when possible!
Individual actions collectively have the power to motivate global change. Share this knowledge with your family, friends, and coworkers so that we may achieve a safer, cleaner, greener world for our lifetimes and future generations.