How plastic plays a vital role in climate change?

November 01, 2022

The plastic pollution crisis that overwhelms our oceans is also a significant and growing threat to the Earth’s climate. At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degree C. With the petrochemical and plastic industries planning a massive expansion in production, the problem is on track to get much worse. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year - equivalent to the emissions released by more than 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

Which stages of plastic life cause greenhouse gasses?

Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gasses are emitted at each and every stage of the plastic lifestyle:-

1. Fossil fuel extraction and transport.

2. Plastic refining and manufacturing.

3. Managing plastic waste

4. Plastic’s impact once it reaches our oceans, waterways and landscape.

At present rates, these greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to meet carbon emissions targets.

1. Extraction and transport:- The extraction and transport of fossil fuels to create plastic produces significant greenhouse gasses. Sources include direct emissions, like methane leakage and flaring, emissions from fuel combustion and energy consumption in the process of drilling for oil or gas and emissions caused by land disturbance when forests and fields are cleared for well pads and pipelines.

2. Refining and manufacturing:- Plastic refining is among the most greenhouse-gas-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector - and the fastest growing. The manufacture of plastic is both energy-intense and emissions-intensive in its own right, producing significant emissions through the cracking of alkanes into olefins, the polymerization and plasticization of olefins into plastic resins, and other chemical refining processes.

3. Waste management:- Plastic is primarily landfilled, recycled, or incinerated - each of which produces greenhouse gas emissions. Landfilling emits at least greenhouse gasses on an absolute level, although it presents significant other risks. Recycling has a moderate emissions profile but displaces new virgin plastic on the market, making it advantageous from an emissions perspective.Incineration leads to extremely high emissions and is the primary driver of emissions from plastic waste management. Globally, the use of incineration in plastic waste management is poised to grow dramatically in the coming decades.

4. Plastic in the environment:- Plastic that is unwanted ends up in the environment, where it continues to have climate impacts as it degrades. Efforts to quantify those emissions are still in the early stages, but first of its kind study demonstrated that plastic at the end of the ocean's surface continually releases methane and other greenhouse gasses and that these emissions increase as plastic breaks down further. Current estimates address only one percent of plastic at the ocean’s surface. Emissions from the 99% of plastic that lies below the ocean’s surface cannot yet be estimated with precision. Significantly, this research showed that plastic on the coastlines, riverbanks, and landscapes releases greenhouse gasses at an even higher rate. Microplastic in the oceans may also interfere with the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide. Earth’s oceans have absorbed 20–40% of all anthropogenic carbon emitted since the dawn of the industrial era. Microscopic plants and animals play a critical role in the biological carbon pump that captures carbon at the ocean’s surface and transports it into the deep oceans, preventing it from reentering the atmosphere.

Urgent, Ambitious Action is Necessary to Stop the Climate Impacts of Plastic:-

High-priority actions that would meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle and also have positive benefits for social or environmental goals include:-

1. Ending the production and use of single-use, disposable plastic.

2. Stopping development of new oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure.

3. Fostering the transition to zero-waste communities.

4. Implementing extended producer responsibility as a critical component of circular economies.

5. Adopting and enforcing ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including plastic production.

Complementary interventions may reduce plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions and reduce environmental and health-related impacts from plastic, but fall short of the emissions reductions needed to meet climate targets. For example, using renewable energy sources can reduce the energy emissions associated with plastic but will not address the significant process emissions from plastic production, nor will it stop the emissions from plastic waste and pollution. Worse, low-ambition strategies and false solutions (such as bio-based and biodegradable plastic) fail to address, or potentially worsen, the lifecycle greenhouse gas impacts of plastic and may exacerbate other environmental and health impacts.

Nothing short of stopping the expansion of petrochemical/plastic production and keeping fossil fuels in the ground will create the surest and most effective reductions in the climate impacts from the plastic lifecycle.