Believe it or not, plastic is a huge driving force behind climate change.
Making plastic products requires enormous energy inputs, only for most of the products to be immediately tossed out, or end up as pollutants.
In this article, we’re going to break down just how plastic fuels climate change, covering subjects like:
Fossil Fuels & Plastic
Plastics are inevitably tied to fossil fuels. Plastic polymers are derived from oil and natural gas. The extraction process for fossil fuels is especially harmful to the environment. Large amounts of energy are needed, so fossil fuels are burned in the process. Not only are greenhouse gasses released, but oil spills and fracking accidents cause long-term damage to ecosystems.
As time goes on, the increasing demand for plastic means that an increasing portion of our fossil fuels will be dedicated to making plastic. Today, up to 8% of the global oil supply is associated with plastics. Experts say that number could rise up to 20% by 2050.
The plastic manufacturing process releases enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses. It’s the most carbon-heavy part of the plastic lifecycle. In 2015, researchers found that just 24 ethylene plants release as much carbon as 4 million passenger vehicles.
Plastic in the Ocean
Ocean plastic pollution has become a huge focus as marine wildlife end up choking or becoming entangled in ocean-based plastic. But ocean plastic isn’t just a physical pollutant; it’s also contributing to climate change.
New research shows that ocean plastic actually emits greenhouse gasses when exposed to the sun. The study only focused on the pollution at the surface, but there’s a huge percentage of plastic sitting in the depths of the ocean. The same study also found that plastic pollution on the coastline and on riverbeds released greenhouse gasses at an even higher rate.
Plastic pollution also interferes with the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon. Microplankton absorb CO2 via photosynthesis. This CO2 then fuels the food chain in the sea in a process called the carbon cycle. Scientists call this the “biological pump.” Plankton that are exposed to microplastics are unable to photosynthesize properly, which slows down the biological pump. This leaves more CO2 in the atmosphere and drives climate change.
Learn More: Does plastic in the ocean affect climate change?
Single-use plastics are especially harmful, as the energy put into manufacturing these products is wasted after just a few uses. While they’re convenient for the masses, their widespread use and high turnover rate mean they’re in constant demand.
This is bad news for our world’s oceans, where many single-use plastics end up. But it’s even worse for climate change, as more fossil fuels are dedicated to producing single-use plastics. Manufacturing single-use plastics releases tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, only to be tossed aside after one use. As ubiquitous as they are, it’s easy to forget how often we use them. Here’s a list of common single-use plastics we use in our everyday lives:
- Grocery bags
- Water bottles
- Disposable cutlery
The effects of single-use plastics on the environment can be mitigated. Many of these products have multiple secondary uses. Giving single-use plastics another life reduces the demand to manufacture more products, which reduces greenhouse gasses.
Unfortunately, many single-use plastics have very specific uses and cannot be repurposed. That’s why the best way to reduce their effect on climate change is by avoiding them altogether. Reusable grocery bags and water bottles are two popular ways to reduce the dominance of single-use plastics. Many municipalities have even gone as far as to ban single-use plastics altogether.
The limited uses of plastic are the biggest factor in its effect on climate change. Enormous quantities of energy and resources used are wasted when the product is thrown away, and the demand for more fuels the cycle. Recycling plastic is one of the best ways to reduce its effect on the climate.
Using recycled plastic means emitting between 50% to 70% fewer greenhouse gasses compared to virgin plastic. Recycling removes the need to extract more fossil fuels. Even more, there’s no need to refine petrochemicals into plastic polymers, which is the stage where the most carbon is emitted.
Unfortunately, recycling plastic is difficult. Many forms of plastic simply aren’t recyclable, which leads to confusion. This may be the reason why the plastic recycling rate is so low compared to paper and glass. Americans recycle just over 8% of their plastic products, versus over 30% for glass. Many people also practice “wish-cycling,” where they enthusiastically toss items into the recycling bin, not knowing that they can’t be recycled.
In the past few years, bad publicity around recycling plastic has deterred some from recycling. Municipalities in the US, UK, and other Western countries once sold their low-quality plastic recyclables to countries like China and Malaysia, until it was found that much of the waste wasn’t even being recycled. Investigators discovered that the materials were actually being put into landfills, incinerated, or outright dumped into the environment. China then stopped taking plastic from the West, leading to a “recycling crisis” as municipalities had nowhere to send their plastic recyclables. This discouraged many from recycling altogether.
While the recycling system isn’t perfect, it’s still much better than using virgin plastics. More education and funding are needed to perfect the recycling infrastructure. A fully functioning recycling system can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by six gigatons over the next 30 years.
The growing proliferation of plastic is not just contributing to pollution; it’s also a significant driver of climate change.
The immense energy inputs from fossil fuel extraction and refining make plastic a dirty industry. As demand for plastic increases, more of the global fossil fuel supply is allocated towards making plastics.
Single-use plastics are especially carbon-heavy, as the energy used to make them is wasted after just a few uses. These products will likely end up in the ocean, where they prevent microplankton from photosynthesizing and stopping the ocean from doing its job as a carbon sink.
While recycling is one way to mitigate the effects of plastic on the climate, the best thing you can do is avoid plastic whenever possible.