Plastic is a Climate Change Problem

Plastic is not just polluting the ocean, it’s polluting our climate too

When we think about the problems of plastic, we often think about ocean. We see marine creatures suffering from plastic pollution. We see surfers riding waves, surrounded by the waste of their fellow humans, and to be honest with you, these were the issues that originally raised the problem for Mathilde and I. We have always been strongly connected to the ocean and the Great Barrier Reef is a very special place to both of us. However, it is not often that when we think about plastic, our minds turn to the climate and the climate crisis that we are currently facing.

Plastic in our oceans is only one small part of a whole system of pollution which begins at extraction, then goes to transport, refinery, manufacturing, distribution, waste management, and last but not least unintended pollution. Over the last 10 years we have been successful in bringing plastic to the forefront of many people’s minds, by talking about marine pollution. Now we have plastic on the agenda, we need to start talking about what the whole system actually means and how we address plastic as a problem at a systems level.

Just now I mentioned the link between plastic and climate change. I imagine that most of us could take a guess at how plastic contributes to anthropocentric climate change, but probably like me, you will be shocked to learn how much. So just for a moment, let’s examine the problem.

 

The following information is sourced from a comprehensive, multi-party report lead by the Center for International Environmental Law. 

If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.”

“In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.”

That figure was not unexpected to me, and probably not to you, and we can’t ignore its significance. I am going to quickly break down the different parts, and then we can get into solutions.

Extraction and Transport

The extraction associated with plastic production is in the process of drilling and fracking for gas and oil. Methane leakage, flaring and fuel combustion all result in emissions. Which is also intensified by the carbon released from land disturbance and clearing.  In the U.S in 2015 9.5–10.5 million metric tons of CO2 we released in association with extraction for plastic manufacturing.

Refining and Manufacture

According to the report written by the Center for International Environmental Law, Plastic refining is among the most greenhouse gas – intensive industries in the manufacturing sector—and the fastest growing. The complicated chemical refinement of plastics is responsible for a large amount of emissions associated with plastic production.

In 2015, 24 ethylene facilities in the US produced 17.5 million metric tons of CO2e, emitting as much CO2 as 3.8 million passenger vehicles. 

Waste Management

Believe it or not landfill emits the least amount of carbon, but obviously presents significant other risks. Many landfills were built in coastal areas and are being exposed due to erosion. Recycling has a moderate emissions profile and can replace the need for new plastics on the market. Incineration is a waste management option that is often used for plastic waste management and rarely spoken about.

Use of incineration in plastic waste management is poised to grow dramatically in the coming decades. US 2015 5.9 million metric tons

Plastic in the Environment

I don’t think I need to talk at length about the harm to flora and fauna that plastic in our environment presents. However I do want to mention recent research on the impact that plastics in our ocean has on contribution to carbon sequestration and emissions.

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 one percent of plastic at the ocean’s surface. Emissions from the 99 percent of plastic that lies below the ocean’s surface cannot yet be estimated with precision

Earth’s oceans have absorbed 20-40 percent of all anthropogenic carbon emitted since the dawn of the indus-trial era. 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 zoo-plankton that transfer the carbon to the deep ocean. 

In recent conversations, a lot of people have concerns about focusing on plastic and that climate change is the most important problem that we need to be talking about. Don’t get the wrong message, that is true, climate change is the single biggest challenge we face. However there is not one single cause for this challenge. Climate change is multi-faceted and we need to be looking at so many different problems and solutions if we are going to create the change we need to see in the world. That is something we can not achieve unless we seriously change our plastic consumption and production.

The same report I have referenced today, also talks about what we can do to address the problem.

 

  • ending the production and use of single- use, disposable plastic;
  • stopping development of new oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure;
  • fostering the transition to zero-waste communities;
  • implementing extended producer responsibility as a critical component of circular economies;
  • adopting and enforcing ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including plastic production.

 

 

You may feel that you don’t have the power to change these things and one person alone doesn’t. We need everyone making an effort. It could be changing your plastic consumption, or helping your community transition to a waste free environment. Or it could be talking to your elected politicians, or pressuring industry to change.

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