Plastic waste and climate change are two of the most serious issues facing our planet. But, are they in fact two separate issues, or is tackling one them also helping to tackle the other? Here, GreenSeas Trust delves into the important topic of plastic waste and climate change to examine how they affect each other, and whether it’s possible to combat both by changing our behaviour.
Are plastic waste and climate change linked?
Climate change is an enormous concern, and the unfortunate truth is that plastic is inextricably linked to it. Unless plastic production and waste is curbed, the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons by 2050, which is between 10 and 13% of the remaining carbon budget. The carbon budget measures the additional emissions that can enter the atmosphere without pushing climate change over the 1.5°C limit, which is considered to be the upper limit the planet could tolerate.
Plastic in our oceans: interfering with the largest natural carbon sink on earth
Oceans are the largest natural carbon sink on earth, meaning that they absorb carbon dioxide that is produced by humans. If this function is interfered with, there would be more CO2 in the atmosphere, leading to rising temperatures and faster climate change.
The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has found worrying links between plastic and the ocean’s ability to function as a carbon sink. Microplastics are being consumed by plankton, which have a key role to play in oceanic carbon chains. Laboratory experiments have shown that this plastic can affect plankton in two ways:
- Plastic can reduce phytoplankton’s ability to fix carbon through photosynthesis.
- Plastic can affect zooplankton and ultimately prevent their survival. These plankton are instrumental in the transportation of carbon to deep-ocean sinks.
CIEL has issued grave warnings about climate change and the involvement of ocean plastic. Alarmingly, plastic at the ocean’s surface can also be heated up by the sun, causing them to release greenhouse gases. Not only do plastics prevent the ocean carrying out its essential function as a carbon sink, they also directly contribute to the accumulation of Co2 in the atmosphere.
Plastic production: a troubling process for our planet
More than 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, and they create greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of their lifecycle.
In order to produce plastics, oil, gas and coal need to be extracted from the earth using carbon-intensive processes. Before extraction can even take place, land has to be cleared so equipment can be installed, which means clearing trees and forests that are part of natural ecosystems and that help to remove carbon dioxide from the air.
Fuel is combusted to operate drilling equipment, producing greenhouse gas emissions. Fracking is also a problematic process; this can be used to extract oil and natural gas. During the process, sand, chemicals and water are injected into the earth where there is a rock layer, so that oil and gas can be released. This process can emit methane when pipes leak, a greenhouse gas that traps 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide would over a 20-year period.
The good news? Fracking has been indefinitely suspended in the UK, after it was blamed for causing earthquakes. The bad news? Plastic production and climate change is a worldwide issue and one small victory like this isn’t enough. In 2015, in the US alone, 9.5-10.5 million metric tons of CO2 emissions came from the extraction and transportation of plastic. That’s equivalent to the emissions from 2.1 million passenger cars being driven for a whole year.
Globally, it is estimated that plastics from extraction, resin production and industrial incineration added the same amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as the emissions of 190 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.
Recycling alone isn’t enough. We need to tackle plastic waste, and we need to do it now!
There has never been a more compelling reason to tackle plastic waste. When you dig a little deeper, the production, use and disposal of plastic is harmful for our planet in so many ways. By reducing plastic usage, not only are you helping to reduce landfill and protect our oceans, you’re also helping to sustain the planet as a whole.
Reducing plastic use is one of the most significant steps you can take. If you want to make a bigger impact on a national level, why not get involved with our BinForGreenSeas project? We place bins on beaches to help prevent plastic entering the sea – at their very core, our bins are designed to encourage behaviour change and encourage people to dispose of waste responsibly.