Plastic's Impact on Climate Change

From Beachapedia

By Regina Figge Cannon


Plastics are made from fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) throughout their life cycle, including during resin production, conversion, and disposal. Over the past four decades, global plastics production has quadrupled. A recent study shows that if this trend persists, the GHG emissions from plastics will reach 15% of the global carbon budget by 2050.[1]


Landfill shutterstock.jpg


Plastics produced globally in 2015 emitted greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 1.8 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (referred to as "carbon dioxide equivalents" or CO2e) over their life cycle.[2] This amount corresponds to 3.8% of the 47 GtCO2e emitted globally that year.[3] Of the 407 metric tons (Mt) of plastic generated globally in 2015, 58% of plastic was discarded or landfilled, and only 18% was recycled.[4] It is estimated that 4.8-12.7 Mt of plastic waste generated by coastal countries entered the ocean in 2010.[5] Not only does plastic in the ocean negatively impact marine ecosystems, human health, food supply and tourism economics, but a recent study also showed that plastic degraded in the ocean releases methane and ethylene, two powerful GHGs, further exacerbating climate change.[6]

In addition to global climate impacts, plastic and plastic petrochemical plants also emit harmful pollutants in to the air. A 2019 report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that the plastics industry accounts for nearly one fourth of the industrial air pollution in the Houston area, noting severe air pollution violations: "[nearly] two-thirds of the 90 plants that the group reviewed violated air-pollution limits over the last five years". Additionally, 20 percent of these plants failed to meet federal emergency planning requirements which is critical in Houston, as this area is prone to extreme coastal hazards including hurricanes and flooding. Accidental chemical fires at these plants are also a concern, as several facility fires have had deadly consequences in 2019, including a death from an explosion at Crosby's KMCO plant in April and 37 people injured from a fire at Exxon Mobil’s Baytown Olefins Plant in July.

Given current growth rates of plastics (4% compounding), global GHG emissions from plastic are projected to grow rapidly. By 2050, annual plastics production is expected to grow to 1,606 Mt with associated GHG emissions of 6.5 GtCO2e.[7] While there are methods to reduce the GHG emissions from plastics, for example, by increasing recycling and using 100% renewable energy to produce resin and during conversion, no one method can mitigate GHG sufficiently[8] and none of the scaled-up versions of these methods are currently available. For this reason and many others, policies are focusing on source-reduction as the preferred mechanism for preventing future emissions and pollution from plastics.

Learn More: Additional Resources from Surfrider


References
  1. Zheng J. & Suh S. 2019. Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics. Nature Climate Change 9, 374–378
  2. Zheng J. & Suh S. 2019. Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics. Nature Climate Change 9, 374–378
  3. Olivier, J. G. J., Schure, K. M. & Peters, J. A. H. W. 2017. Trends in Global CO2 and Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Summary of the 2017 Report (PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency)
  4. Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R. & Law, K. L. 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Sci. Adv. 3, e1700782
  5. Jambeck, J. R. et al. 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347, 768–771
  6. Royer S-J, Ferrón S, Wilson ST, Karl DM. 2018. Production of methane and ethylene from plastic in the environment. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0200574. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0200574
  7. Zheng J. & Suh S. 2019. Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics. Nature Climate Change 9, 374–378
  8. Zheng J. & Suh S. 2019. Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics. Nature Climate Change 9, 374–378