Single-use Plastics & Climate Change

Single-use plastics prioritize convenience. The energy put into making single-use plastics is wasted after just one use. This creates a constant demand and fuels a vicious cycle that drives climate change. In this article, we’re going to answer some of your questions around single-use plastics and climate change, including:

  • How do single-use plastics relate to climate change?
  • What are the most common single-use plastics?
  • Do single-use plastics emit greenhouse gasses? 
  • How can we mitigate the effects single-use plastics have on the environment?

What are single-use plastics?

Single-use plastics are plastic products that are meant to be discarded after just one use. They became common in the 1970s as companies ditched glass and paper for plastic. Not only did it make once heavy products lighter, but it also became cheaper to package products as well. 

Milk jars became plastic milk bottles. Paper grocery bags were traded out for plastic. The bottled water industry exploded as people found it easy to grab a plastic water bottle from a nearby store. The convenience of use, along with the ease of disposal, have helped create a culture of mass consumerism which is one of the driving forces behind climate change

How do single-use plastics relate to climate change?

In order to make plastic, we need fossil fuels. Plastic polymers are made from refined chemicals found in petroleum and natural gas. Extracting fossil fuels is a dirty process. Large rigs are used to drill deep into the Earth to pump out the oil. Oil rigs themselves require fossil fuels to operate, as does the transportation of fossil fuels to refining plants. These processes release massive amounts of carbon. 

The refining of petrochemicals into plastic is the most energy-intensive step in the plastic lifecycle. Ethylene plants, which refine plastic polymers, are known to emit huge amounts of carbon. In 2015, researchers discovered that just 24 ethylene plants produced as much greenhouse gasses as nearly 4 million passenger vehicles. 

Single-use plastics are designed to be immediately discarded, which creates a constant demand. This perpetuates the cycle of fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and refining. With the world population growing, more of the world’s fossil fuel supply will be allocated toward single-use plastic. Today, it’s estimated that between 4% and 8% of the global oil supply is associated with plastic. By 2050, that number could be as high as 20%.

What are the most common single-use plastics?

We use single-use plastics in our everyday lives. Oftentimes, we don’t even notice them. It’s good to remember the most common plastics that you’ll likely come across on a day-to-day basis. The most common single-use plastics found strewn on beaches are listed below:

  • Cigarette butts
  • Grocery bags
  • Water & soft drink bottles
  • Straws
  • Disposable cutlery
  • Food wrappers 
  • Packaging
  • Bottle caps
  • To-go boxes

Do single-use plastics emit greenhouse gasses?

We usually think of plastic as a form of visible pollution. It seems inert, creating only a physical hazard for wildlife. While the manufacturing of plastics emits carbon, we don’t usually think of the plastic itself as a source of greenhouse gasses. 

Recently, researchers discovered that many types of plastics emit greenhouse gasses like methane and ethylene when exposed to the sun. The emissions have yet to be quantified, but the volume of plastic left floating in oceans, rivers, and sitting on coastlines means that it’s a significant amount in the greater realm of climate change. 

As demand for single-use plastics continues to increase, we can expect the volume of plastic that ends up in the environment to increase proportionally. This can eventually create a new large-scale source of greenhouse gasses.

How can we mitigate the effects single-use plastics have on the environment?

Reducing the impact of single-use plastic is a high priority in the minds of environmentalists across the globe. While weaning ourselves off single-use plastics may not be easy, there are several ways we can reduce the effects of these materials on our planet. 

Recycling is the simplest way to reduce the carbon footprint of single-use plastics. While the recycling process still emits greenhouse gasses, recycled plastics have been shown to emit up to 70% fewer greenhouse gasses than virgin plastic during manufacturing. That’s a big difference. 

Repurposing certain plastic items is also a great way to reduce their impact. Using plastic containers for other purposes takes them out of the waste stream and prevents them from ending up in landfills or waterways. Many plastic items have several uses that go far beyond their intended purpose. 

The best way to reduce the impact of single-use plastics is to avoid them altogether. While you might have to work a bit harder, there are plenty of alternatives to single-use plastics. Reusable tote bags have become a hit with those who want to green up their trip to the grocery store. Reusable bottles are also a great option if you want to avoid buying plastic water bottles. Many municipalities have even resorted to banning plastic straws and grocery bags in an effort to cut demand

Key Takeaways

When most of us think of the causes behind climate change, we might think of large factories and heavy traffic. We tend not to think about the proliferation of single-use plastic, but these materials require large energy inputs from fossil fuels, and so release tons of carbon. Moreso, single-use plastics even emit greenhouse gasses when they decompose.

Fighting against the effects of these materials is an uphill battle, but it can be done. Recycling is effective, but abstaining from buying products that contain single-use plastics is the best answer. As the demand for these products increases, plastic as a single point source of carbon emissions will become a larger part of the conversation on climate change.

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