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How Plastic Pollution Affects Climate Change

Updated: Feb 8

Sources of pollution from plastic

When you think about plastic pollution, you may envision marine life tangled up in plastic packages or piles of litter encroaching on natural scenery, but did you know that plastic pollution also impacts climate change on a much larger scale? In fact, “if the growth of plastic production continues at its current rate, by 2050, the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world's total oil consumption which will indirectly/directly contribute to Climate Change” [9].


Climate change is caused by a combination of power generation, manufacturing, food production, deforestation, transportation, and overconsumption. In many of these industries, plastic is a key product, allowing its continued production (and waste) to accelerate the rate of climate change. In understanding how plastic impacts climate change, we can make more informed decisions on where and how to cut back on our plastic consumption on an individual level.


Terms to Know

Climate Change

changes in our average weather patterns

Global Warming

increase in the average surface temperature of our planet

Greenhouse Gas

gasses that trap heat in our atmosphere

Anthropogenic

caused or impacted by human activities

Bioplastics

created from natural resources like vegetable oils, carbohydrates, and starch

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

the idea that producers of plastic must bear the burden of managing the post-consumer waste

Synthetic

describes products created from artificial chemicals, as opposed to natural materials


What is Climate Change?

The terms climate change and global warming are often used interchangeably, but they actually mean different things. Climate change refers to changes in our average weather patterns, while global warming refers to the “increase in the average surface temperature of our planet.” [5]. According to NASA in February 2022, the Earth’s average temperature was recorded at 59°F (15°C) [11]. Compare this to a mean temperature of 57°F (14°C) from 1951-1980 [TBD] [18].


Global Temperature from 1880 - 2022 - Nasa Earth_Plastic Detox

[10] (Photo credit: NASA Earth Observatory)


“In our current period of global warming, there’s been a well-documented rise of average temperatures around the globe since the industrial revolution in the 17 and 1800s”

— [5] Crash Course, 2021


Let’s see how this takes place and why.


Causes of climate change:

  1. Historical causes of climate change: orbital, atmospheric, slowly rearranging continents and oceans over time, and natural changes in levels of greenhouse gas [5].

  2. Greenhouse gas emissions:

    1. Naturally occurring sources: methane (CH4), water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrous oxide (N2O) [3].

    2. Anthropogenic (human-caused) sources: burning of fossil fuels, power generation, manufacturing, modern agriculture, deforestation, transportation, and overconsumption.

With decades of climate research to reference, we now know that climate change is normal and is the earth’s way of responding to environmental changes; however, humans do play a large role in just how much the earth is required to change. There is a “95% probability that human activities (like burning fossil fuels, industrialization, modern agriculture, and deforestation) have caused most of the earth’s warming since the mid-20th century” [5]. In 2020, the U.S. was responsible for 14% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, while accounting for only 5% of the world's population [3]. Continued emissions will lead to increased global warming and negatively impact the biodiversity of our ecosystems.


Effects of climate change:

  • Hotter temperatures

  • Severe storms

  • Increased drought severity/frequency

  • Warming and rising oceans

  • Loss of species

  • Health risks

  • Human and animal displacement


What are Greenhouse Gases?

Greenhouse gasses are what trap heat in our atmosphere, which warms our planet. Some examples of greenhouse gasses include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, and chlorofluorocarbons (man-made). Carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) is naturally removed from the atmosphere when absorbed by plants through their biological carbon cycle [7]. Greenhouse gasses are essential to keeping earth at a livable temperature, but too much released at a rapid rate can lead to global warming and climate change at quicker rates than we are accustomed to [15]. “A report by the Tear Fund (2019) states that global plastic production emits 400Mt of greenhouse gasses each year…” [9].

Microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton) are vital to capture carbon and transport it deep into our oceans, creating a balance in greenhouse gasses. However, these plankton are being contaminated with microplastic [1]. While more research is needed to observe how our environment is coping with the increase of greenhouse gasses, there is no doubt that in large numbers, they are causing more problems than we can keep up with.


How the Life Cycle of Plastic Accelerates the Problem of Greenhouse Gas

Plastic creates pollution and greenhouse gasses at every stage of its life. Synthetic plastic (man-made plastic) is made from fossil fuels. From the beginning stages of the plastic lifecycle to the end, greenhouse gasses are released into our atmosphere. Naturally occurring greenhouse gasses are good for our atmosphere and keep the earth warm, but too many can lead to problems.


Plastic pollution creates more greenhouse gasses than would normally occur in nature. “In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere—equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants” [1]. Right now, we are seeing growing concerns of global warming and climate change, which led us to explore just how much plastic impacts these changes on earth.


The beginning of plastic pollution


→ Extraction of fossil fuel → Transportation → Refining into desired consistency → Manufacturing of plastic products


Plastic pollution first starts at the point of extraction. Synthetic plastic is made from fossil fuels like crude oil, natural gas, and coal, all of which release greenhouse gasses like methane when extracted from the earth. They are then transported to a facility where they are refined and treated with heat (a process called cracking—not to be confused with fracking), creating a variety of different plastic polymers depending on their desired functionality. Refineries and manufacturers of plastic are one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions [14]. Plans for expansion are already underway with the plastic industry set to invest $204 billion in plastic production by 2025 [2]. Plastic contributes to higher greenhouse emission through sources like wastewater, leakage from plastic landfills, incineration fumes, transportation, and methane from landfills [9].


The useful life of plastic


→ Consumer consumption → Product use


Once plastic products are created, they are ready to be transported to stores and then to customers. According to CIEL in 2019 [2], 40% of these products were considered single-use plastics. These are items like product packaging, food packaging, plastic bags, plastic utensils, and single-serving water bottles. Products that aren’t single-use still pose a threat to our environment because most will not end up being recycled.


The end of plastics’ useful life


→ Managing plastic waste in communities, landscape, waterways, & oceans → Managing waste sent to recycling centers → Recycled, dumped in landfills, or incinerated


Most plastics' negative impact on our climate occurs towards the end of its useful life. After plastic is used, it can be disposed of by the consumer in a few different ways: in a recycling bin, in the trash, or in the form of litter. After the consumer makes a decision on how they will handle it, it then falls into the hands of the local waste management systems. Recycling is the main solution for dealing with plastic waste, but recycling centers worldwide are bursting at the seams [2]. When recycling centers can’t keep up with all the incoming plastic, incineration is the next option for dealing with the overwhelming influx of plastic waste. The problem is that this option is one of the worst solutions for the climate [2].


As for the plastic that doesn't successfully make it to recycling centers, it will either end up in landfills, incineration centers, or polluting our lands and oceans. Worse, once “[that] plastic breaks down, it releases ethylene and methane… methane traps atmospheric heat at 25 times the rate of carbon dioxide over a century” [6].


In order to improve solutions for plastic, there needs to be more education and transparency on the topic of plastic pollution and how we manage it at every stage. Continued emissions will lead to further global warming [14]. I do not believe that plastic was invented to harm our planet, but now that we know that it does, it's up to us to support in the management of the waste we create. You can check out more on how to recycle your plastic waste here.


Status of Current Policies and Efforts in Reducing Climate Change

The U.S. is responsible for more plastic waste than any other county to date [6], which is alarming considering the fact that the U.S. only accounts for 5% of the global population. Luckily, the U.S. isn’t the only country that has taken notice of the damages pollution is causing on the climate. The Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty implemented to help mitigate climate change, was effective November of 2016. Since then, 194 Parties have joined the agreement.


Key elements of the Paris Agreement:

  1. Sustainably reduce greenhouse gas emissions & limit temperature rise to 2/1.5°C

  2. Review countries’ commitments and progress to cutting emissions every five years

  3. Help underdeveloped countries finance ways to develop resilience to climate impacts [17].

Since its inception in 2016, climate action has needed to massively increase in order to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement. While many improvements have been made in the power and transportation sectors, we are not currently on track to meet the long-term climate goals of the Paris Agreement [16].


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses two programs to measure greenhouse gas emissions and use the data to inform the public and policymakers. The EPA aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through initiative and partnership programs [7]. It is unclear what our current success rate is in reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement, but what we do know is that action is required at every level (from government to consumers) in order to see improvement on climate change.


Solutions to Slow Climate Change Through Plastic Management

  • Vote against the expansion of oil, gas, and petrochemical plants.

  • Plant more trees! Carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) is removed from the atmosphere when it is absorbed by plants through their biological carbon cycle [7].

  • Participate and support a low-waste lifestyle in your local community. For example, buy from farmers markets, buy loose fruits and veggies, buy from bulk bins, choose low plastic or package free options, compost, and buy second-hand.

  • Choose plastic alternative products for everyday use like; reusable bags, bamboo toothbrushes, and refillable water bottles.

  • Check out alternatives like bioplastics (but be sure to understand how to properly dispose of these as most are not recyclable in a curbside collection bin).

  • Vote for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes where the producer bears the responsibility for the pollution it is creating.


Conclusion

Plastic pollution impacts the environment at every point of its lifecycle. By having a clear picture on what climate change is, we can see how plastic plays a part. Incorporating plastic in our daily lives the way that we have, at such rapid rates, is having an adverse effect on our climate. Understanding the relationship between plastic and our environment is key to making more informed purchase choices on an individual level. By finding alternatives to single-use and other plastic products, we can help to slow down the pollution caused by plastic, and in turn, slow the rate at which global warming is happening.


Check out how Plastic Detox is making an impact!


 

Resources:


[1] Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) (May 2019). Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. Retrieved from: https://www.ciel.org/project-update/plastic-climate-the-hidden-costs-of-a-plastic-planet/

[2] Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) (Dec. 2019). Plastic is Accelerating the Climate Crisis [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgSBzfa-eKk

[3] Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. (n.d). Greenhouse Gases Factsheet [Data set]. Retrieved from: https://css.umich.edu/publications/factsheets/climate-change/greenhouse-gases-factsheet

[4] Chameides, B. (2007). Picturing a ton of CO2. Environmental Defense Fund. Retrieved from: https://blogs.edf.org/climate411/2007/02/20/picturing-a-ton-of-co2/

[5] Crash Course (May 2021). What is Climate Change? Crash Course Geography #14 [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMwFNMfjFuU

[6] Crawford, I. (Aug 2022). Would stopping plastic pollution help with climate change? How do we do it? MIT Climate Portal. https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/would-stopping-plastic-pollution-help-climate-change-how-do-we-do-it

[7] EPA United States Environmental Protection Agency (May 2022). Overview of Greenhouse Gases. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases

[8] EPA United States Environmental Protection Agency (November, 2022). What EPA Is Doing About Climate Change. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/climate-change/what-epa-doing-about-climate-change

[9] Mahapatra, P. C., Sahu, B. K., & Mohanty, A. K. (2020). Plastic Waste, Health & Climate Change: Issues & Challenges of Odisha. Indian Journal of Public Health Research & Development, 11(6), 735–741.

[10] NASA Earth Observatory (2023). World of Change: Global Temperatures [Infographic]. Retrieved from:

[12] NASA, Climate Kids (Dec. 2022). Meet the Greenhouse Gases. Retrieved from: https://climatekids.nasa.gov/greenhouse-cards/

[13] OECD (Sept. 2018). Improving Plastics Management: Trends, policy responses, and the role of international co-operation and trade. Retrieved from: https://www.oecd.org/environment/waste/policy-highlights-improving-plastics-management.pdf

[14] Shen, M., Huang, W., Chen, M., Song, B., Zeng, G., & Zhang, Y. (2020). (Micro)plastic crisis: Un-ignorable contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Journal of Cleaner Production, 254. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2020.120138

[15] Sneideman, J. & Twamley, E. (2020). Climate Change : The Science Behind Melting Glaciers and Warming Oceans with Hands-On Science Activities. Nomad Press.

[16] United Nations Climate Change (n.d.) The Paris Agreement. Retrieved from: https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement

[17] United Nations (n.d.) The Paris Agreement. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/paris-agreement

[18] Hansen, Ruedy, Sato, & Lo (Dec. 2010).Global Surface Temperature Change. Advancing Earth and Space Science. Retrieved from: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2010RG000345

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