Plastic and Climate Change
Climate change or global warming has been recognised as the most urgent issue affecting all of humanity and the species and ecosystems on our planet. Our climate and natural systems are changing because of rising temperatures due to an increase in greenhouse gases.
The most significant greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). Fossil fuel use is the primary source of CO2.
Plastic is mostly made from fossil fuels: oil and natural gas. The fossil fuels must be extracted from the ground, processed into a usable form, manufactured into plastic products and then disposed of.
At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C degrees. By 2050, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget. ~ CIEL
Plastic is inextricably linked to climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are produced during extraction, manufacturing and disposal.
To stop the climate impacts of plastic, we must take urgent action not just stopping plastic pollution at the source but changing the systems within which our lifestyles operate.
Plastic action is climate action.
Scientists have discovered that global climate has been changing at an unprecedented rate since the Industrial Revolution, when new technologies by humans led to increased carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
- gases released primarily by extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which releases stores of carbon that were buried millions of years ago,
- the tiny particles produced by incomplete burning,
- and “Black Carbon”, commonly called soot or smoke, form a blanket that traps all the heat.
Let’s take an in-depth look of the role of plastic in contributing to all the three factors above.
Plastics originate as fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases from cradle to grave,
Extraction and transportation: The main building blocks of plastic are natural gas and oil, both which are fossil fuels. Natural gas and some oil is extracted from the earth through hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. Extraction and transportation of these fossil fuels is a carbon-intensive activity. Land disturbance also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions associated with extraction.
Disposing: Single-use plastics are increasing at an alarming rate year on year, resulting in a quick pathway from use to disposal. Out of the 3 disposal options: landfill, recycling and incineration; incineration has the largest climate impact by releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases.
Refining and manufacturing: The process of refining a fossil fuel is also greenhouse-gas intensive. In 2015, emissions from manufacturing ethylene, the building block for polyethylene plastics, contributed as much carbon dioxide as 45 million passenger vehicles emit during one year.
Finally: Plastics can break down into smaller pieces, called microplastics, through degradation or exposure to the sun, heat, or water. These microplastics scatter across the globe and throughout the ocean. Plankton in the ocean remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, evidence suggests that plankton are ingesting ever-greater quantities of microplastics. The ingestion of microplastics could reduce plankton’s ability to remove carbon dioxide effectively from the atmosphere.
The visual reminder that our disposable culture and dependence on throwaway plastic has wide reaching impacts
Did You Know?
About 4-8% of annual global oil consumption is associated with plastics, according to the World Economic Forum. If this reliance on plastics persists, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050.
Did You Know?
Researchers have found that greenhouse gases (methane and ethylene) are emitted as common plastics degrade in the environment when exposed to sunlight.
Did You Know?
In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will produce more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases—equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.
Resources & Reports
PLASTIC & CLIMATE THE HIDDEN COSTS OF A PLASTIC PLANET