Not JUST Rubbish: How Plastic is Linked to Climate Change…
Looking at the title for today’s blog post, you might be wondering why you’re reading yet another blog post about climate change and plastic pollution… You’re right, these are really important environmental topics that we’ve definitely covered in the past! But they’re often regarded and discussed as separate issues, when in reality they’re a lot more interrelated than we think.
As a quick refresher, climate change refers to the increase in global average temperature as a consequence of man-made actions. The dramatic rise in our use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, coupled with mass deforestation and landfill are all factors which have enabled greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to build up in the atmosphere - overall causing our Earth to warm to dangerous temperatures.
But from its production to its decomposition, plastic is another really large contributor to this phenomenon of climate change - let’s talk a little bit about why…
Extraction, Transportation & Primary Processing
Oil, coal and natural gas are the main constituents of the plastic we use everyday. These fossil fuels are extracted from earth through a super destructive process, known as fracking. This extraction process, in addition to the transportation and primary processing of fossil fuels for large scale production, is a really carbon intensive process - and was found to globally emit over a BILLION metric tons of carbon dioxide, accounting for over 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions! Also, according to the World Economic Forum, around 4-8% of global oil consumption is linked to plastic production. It was also projected that if our reliance on plastics continues at this rate, it will account for 20% of oil consumption by 2050!
Next, to actually make plastic products like plastic bags and bottles, the saturated hydrocarbons from fossil fuels must first be broken down into olefins, which are smaller, unsaturated hydrocarbons. These olefins are then made into plastic resins, acting as the base for almost all of our plastic products. Releasing an equivalent of 200 MILLION metric tons of CO2 according to the 2015 CIEL report - this production stage is also REALLY greenhouse gas intensive. And if you’re thinking that these emissions are already way too high, you’re right! Unfortunately for us, it is projected that emissions associated with olefin production will increase by over 30% by 2030.
Plastic in the Environment
Once plastic is quickly used and disposed of, it is usually processed in 1 of 3 different ways: recycling, landfill or incineration. Of these 3 possible pathways, incineration has the greatest climate impact, releasing MILLIONS of metric tonnes of CO2 per year. However, when plastics aren’t disposed of properly, or are displaced from landfill sites in windy or rainy weather conditions, it leaks into the environment. In doing so, plastic often pollutes waterways where certain types - such as low density polyethylene (a really common type of plastic which is found in lightweight plastic bags) - releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down into microplastics…
But apart from directly emitting greenhouse gases, these microplastics also spread across the world's oceans, interacting with chemicals that make them really toxic to most organisms. One of these organisms is phytoplankton, which are really important types of micro-algae that photosynthesise to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Plastic also physically blocks sunlight when found on the surface of water bodies - preventing other aquatic plants from photosynthesising, and hence absorbing the CO2 that we have WAY too much of. This is definitely not ideal in our fight against climate change, since the ocean is a really integral carbon sink which absorbs around 30-50% of CO2 emissions from human activity!
But the good news is that we can help solve 2 problems at once - plastic pollution AND climate change - when we’re conscious about our plastic use! By opting for reusables and following the 5 R’s of plastic we can all really make a difference as individuals and as a community. On a larger scale, businesses that opt for renewable energy sources when producing plastic would be reducing their overall emissions in this phase by 50%!
That’s all from me today!