Climate change in a (plastic) bottle

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted, mainly due to moving house, having my annual review (woo I’m a second year PhD candidate now!), moving into a new office, presentations and moving labs! Last weekend was my first free weekend in a long time and it was so nice to just be at home and relax and sort my life out a bit. Hopefully I can get into writing a bit more again as I really enjoy it.

Even as a researcher in the plastic pollution world I find it difficult to stay on top of the latest article and news story about the plastic crisis. Plastic pollution is undoubtably a huge issue: 79% of plastics accumulate in land-fills or the natural environment, while only 9% is recycled globally. If current trends and waste management continue, approximately 12,000 Mt of plastic waste would be in the environment or landfill by 2050.

However, many people argue that plastic pollution is taking away from more serious environmental issues such as deforestation, habitat loss and climate change.

The huge shift in public opinion on plastics only started in 2015 when a public uproar against microbeads was seen. Then after Blue Planet II aired in 2017, campaigns and petitions have continued to rise drastically while other issues are merely only acknowledged.

The apparent higher public engagement with plastic pollution may be because as consumers plastic pollution is much more immediate. You can see it and touch it, it’s on our shelfs and in that way you feel like you should have some control. Which is why people enjoy beach cleaning and picking up rubbish – you can see the changes in your hand.

Comparatively if you choose to walk to work rather than drive, you don’t see the benefits to the climate straight away. Public pressure has caused several countries to place bans on numerous single-use items. However action to reduce fossil fuels is lacking, partly as a result of the inertia of several oil and gas companies that dominate the sector, despite the current global movement of the Global Climate Strike and School Strike for Climate which saw over 7.6 million people from 185 countries protesting.

Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a special report emphasising the need to limit global warming to 1.5°C by cutting global emissions by 45% by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. Although this was in the news, the focus has been a lot on plastic pollution still.

I agree that climate change will have more serious repercussions but plastic pollution and climate change are two parts of the same problem even if they aren’t treated so. Plastic production is undermining efforts to prevent climate change.

How does plastic pollution contribute to climate change?

2 new processing plants that will produce ingredients for plastics in western Pennsylvania and the Texas Gulf Coast will produce annual emissions equal to adding 800,000 new cars to our roads. This is only 2 out of the 300 that will be constructed in the US alone.

Plastics production has quadrupled in the past four decades globally and threatens our ability to prevent the global temperature rise of 1.5C. A recent study showed that in 2015 the production of fossil-fuel based plastics produced 3.8% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions that year. Plastic production is therefore accountable for almost double the amount of global emissions from the aviation industry which contributes around 2%.

If this growth continues, at around 4% per year, the greenhouse gas emissions produced from plastic production will account for 15% of the remaining global carbon budget by 2050.

A recent report from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) highlighted how each stage of the lifecycle of plastics is contributing the climate change. In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will emit 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases. The majority of plastics are produced from fossil fuels, usually natural gas and petroleum.

1) Extraction and transport of fossil fuels:

Direct emissions such as methane leakage occur during extraction of fossil fuels while the combustion and energy consumption from drilling and transport emits greenhouse gases too.

2) Refining and manufacturing of plastics

Fossil fuels are refined to form the basic building blocks of plastics such as ethylene, butene and propylene. This process requires “cracking” of larger hydrocarbons into smaller ones and releases methane and carbon dioxide.

The introduction of fracking, the hydraulic fracturing of oil or natural gas, has made producing the raw materials necessary for plastic production significantly cheaper. This in turn has resulted in the increase of many hard-to-recycle plastics such as bottles, packaging and sachets.

Packaging in particular is one of the top environmental plastic polluters. These products are not only hard to recycle, but the demand for using the recycled material is minimal.

 3) Waste management of plastic waste

Plastics are mostly landfilled but are also recycled or incinerated, all of which emit greenhouse gases. Incineration is the highest emitting waste management of plastics and the use of it is set to grow significantly. When plastics are incinerated it releases the stored carbon in the plastic in addition to other pollutants including biphenyls and mercury.

 4) Plastic pollution in the environment.

Unmanaged plastic ends up in waterways, oceans and the terrestrial environment where it continues to emit greenhouse gases as it degrades. Although research into this is still in its early stages, it has been demonstrated that plastic pollution on the sea surface continually release greenhouse gases such as methane and that these emissions increase as break down continues. Plastic underneath the water surface, i.e. the remaining 99%, is currently unaccounted for.

In addition, new research suggests that marine microplastic (<5mm) pollution may be hindering the oceans natural ability to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, which is usually up to 40% of all human-produced carbon dioxide.

Microscopic phytoplankton and zooplankton play a crucial role in the biological carbon pump that sequesters carbon and prevents it from re-entering the atmosphere. However experiments have shown that microplastics reduce the ability of phytoplankton to photosynthesise and therefore fix carbon.

The future of plastic pollution

Currently, our demand for carbon-based plastic is unsustainable. Although gasoline demand is falling as a result of more efficient ways of transport such as electric vehicles, oil and gas companies plan to make more plastic from crude oil instead. The change to crude oil will cause huge environmental consequences.

Image result for how plastic production contributes to climate change

 A radical change is vital if we are to ensure global temperature only increases by 1.5C and therefore reduce the affects of climate change. There is a need to address our overly consumerist lifestyles and therefore change the way we live.  

I’m not saying to completely get rid of plastic – there are lots of places where it is essential, think of medicine. One the other hand, we do not need to plastic wrap our bananas.There are many ways to cut the unnecessary amount of plastic in your life, but we should not be fooled into thinking that individual actions alone will be sufficient to prevent this problem.

Some steps have been taken to reduce plastic waste and environmental impact but there is an urgent need for large-scale systemic changes internationally.

There are several strategies that have been suggested to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastic production:

1)  Reducing growth in demand.

The most effective way to reduce plastic contribution to the climate crisis is to dramatically reduce the production of plastic globally. By cutting the current growth rate of plastic pollution in half, there would be a  60% cut in emissions from plastic production by 2050.

Researching into alternatives should be a priority. For example, if everyone used a reusable water bottle, this would stop the demand for 1 million single-use bottles being bought every minute globally. Dramatically reducing the production of single-use, disposable plastic items is crucial.

2)  Circular Economy.

Almost all plastics can be recycled and the highest quality plastics can be recycled several times; yet only 18% was recycled worldwide in 2015. Despite each recycled product requiring a small amount of new plastic, this will gradually increase its life cycle through reuse. In addition, producer responsibility is critical to ensuring a circular economy is achieved. A circular economy is vital and requires systematic change and collaboration between all stakeholders.

3) Renewable energy.

It is vital that the development of new oil, gas and petrochemical infrastructure is halted. The energy used to produce plastics can be slowly decarbonised to reach 100% renewables, such as wind power, by 2050 to reduce the carbon impact of plastics. However, this will still not address the significant contribution to emissions in the production stage of plastics or waste.

4) Bio-based plastics have been suggested but offer a false solution.

“Biodegradable” plastics can be made from wood, corn starch and sugar cane and would allow fossil-fuel based plastics to be gradually phased out.  However, this would require huge amounts of agricultural land which may not be feasible with increasing population and therefore demand in plastics. Bio-based plastics may potentially worsen the greenhouse gas emissions of the plastic lifecycle as well as health impacts.
Source: Plastic recycling library

Ultimately, if the global community is to ensure that the world’s temperature does not rise by 1.5C, the expansion of the petrochemical and plastics industry must be dramatically reduced as it will play a huge part in climate impacts otherwise.

Although this requires huge systematic change, there are still changes that you can make that do make a difference (although I do appreciate not everyone is in a position to do so) :

  • Don’t buy unnecessary single-use plastic. Do your bananas need that plastic wrap? Get a reusable water bottle and coffee cup.
  • Try to be as zero-waste as possible.  If you have to buy plastic, make sure you can recycle it.
  • Switch your shampoo in a plastic bottle to a shampoo bar, the same goes for soap!
  • Get a stainless steal razor instead of a disposable one
  • Bulk buy groceries
  • Refill your washing-up liquid to save you buying a new plastic container
  • Buy your fruit and veg loose, you don’t need to put it in one of those tiny plastic bags, just wash it at home!

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