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How does the production of plastic and its resultant pollution of earth and in our oceans affect climate change?
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Gleick P, “Bottled Water and Energy Fact Sheet” (Pacific Institute, 2007) found that

it took approximately 17 million barrels of oil equivalent to produce plastic for bottled water consumed by Americans in 2006 - enough energy to fuel more than 1 million American cars and light trucks for a year.

 

The report “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet” (Center for International Environmental Law, 2019) examines plastic’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The key points of the report are given below.

 

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

1) Fossil fuel extraction, transport and land clearing

Fossil fuel production and plastic production are closely linked - with elements of both often taking place at the same or adjacent facilities. The entrenchment of fossil fuels in the plastic production process is hard to overcome.

According to World Economic Forum, plastic production accounts for 4-8 percent of global oil consumption annually. WEF estimates that, if growth trends continue, plastic will account for 20 percent of global oil consumption by 2050.

2) Plastic refining and manufacture

Even if fully powered by renewable energy sources, plastic production would remain a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions because of the emissions created by the chemical processes themselves.

3) Waste management

Plastic is primarily landfilled, recycled, or incinerated - each of which produces greenhouse gas emissions.

Landfilling emits the least greenhouse gases 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. Whenever plastic is burned, it emits greenhouse gases, principally CO2. Frequently touted for its ability to turn waste to energy, incineration converts waste into air pollutants, bottom ash, fly ash, combustion gases, wastewater, wastewater treatment sludge, and heat by burning. Globally, the use of incineration in plastic waste management is poised to grow dramatically in the coming decades.

4) Plastic in the environment

Plastic at the ocean’s surface continually releases methane and other greenhouse gases, and these emissions increase as the plastic breaks down further. Plastic on the coastlines, riverbanks, and landscapes releases greenhouse gases at an even higher rate.

Microplastic in the oceans may also interfere with the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide. Laboratory experiments suggest this plastic pollution can reduce the ability of phytoplankton to fix carbon through photosynthesis. They also suggest that plastic pollution can reduce the metabolic rates, reproductive success, and survival of zooplankton that transfer the carbon to the deep ocean.

 

The report also mentions

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 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons - 10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.

The report points out that estimates reported should be considered conservative; the greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic life cycle are almost certainly higher than those calculated.

See also: “What Actions Can Reduce the Effect of Plastic on Climate Change?” (OneSharedEarth, 2020)

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Plastic pollution mainly ends up in our oceans, for example of the 100 million metric tons of plastic produced every year, about 10 million end up in the oceans. This means it primarily affects marine animals and sea birds who eat it or become entangled in it, which often causes injury or death.  

Plastic is made from oil. Plastic production accounts for 8% of global oil use therefore excessive consumption of plastic affects climate change as it encourages fossil fuel companies to keep ‘exploring for and extracting oil to meet this demand. Also, recent studies have shown that certain plastics release greenhouse gases (that cause climate change) after they have been discarded and start being broken down. 

 

Bibliography

Pollution & Climate Change” (Greenpeace USA, 2019)

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