By now, most of us have learned or at least heard about how excessive use of single-use plastic products and improper disposal have negative impacts on people and the environment. A recent study published by the Center of International Environmental Law estimates that the global plastic supply chain could be responsible for up to 56 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That’s over 10-13% of the overall carbon emissions “budget” that scientists estimate we need to stay under to keep the Earth’s temperatures at a liveable level. That’s… terrifying.
While we may know that improper disposal and excessive production of plastics are not good for the environment, we don’t always see how these are connected to other development issues, such as climate change and public health.
So... how exactly does plastic affect climate change?
Intense plastic production and consumption harms the environment and worsens climate change in two major ways: 1) by encouraging and fast-tracking the commercial manufacture of plastic products through increased consumer demand, and 2) by disrupting habitats and ecosystems as a result of improper plastic waste disposal.
Okay. Go on.
Plastic consumption can hasten the worst effects of climate change because of its manufacturing processes. Extracting and refining crude oil and natural gas is an essential component of plastics production, which means that the harmful manufacturing processes often associated with fossil fuels, such as fracking and ethylene cracking, are also very much tied to plastics production. Processes such as these produce large, unsustainable quantities of greenhouse gas, which are released into the atmosphere.
Global plastic supply chain could be responsible for up to 56 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That’s over 10-13% of the overall carbon emissions “budget” that scientists estimate we need to stay under to keep the Earth’s temperatures at a liveable level.
Excessive release of these gases results in excessive trapping of heat in our environment, which then triggers increases in global temperatures. These upticks in global temperatures trigger extreme weather fluctuations, which risk disrupting global food supply chains and cause natural disasters. Think of greenhouse gas emissions as the catalyst for a never-ending “feedback loop” for rising temperatures.
Sounds hot! (Read: Yikes.) Now, what about the plastic that I consume?
Research has shown that only about 9% of all plastic is ever recycled. Some of the most common methods of disposal are landfilling and incineration. Landfilling is the process of leaving large quantities of waste in designated dumpsites, while incineration is the process of systematically burning plastic. Both processes often produce large quantities of greenhouse gases. And then, plastic becomes part of the food web.
As in… When straws get stuck in sea turtles’ noses?
Plastic consumption drastically disrupts the habitats of sea creatures big and small. On the “big” side, you have large animals like whales and sea turtles being slowly poisoned or suffocated to death by wayward plastic waste found drifting through our oceans and seas. These can end up
entangled with marine life.
Intense plastic production and consumption harm the environment by disrupting habitats and ecosystems as a result of improper plastic waste disposal.
On the “small” side, scientists have also increasingly started exploring the adverse effects microplastic pollution has on oceanic ecosystems. As plastic product residuals make their way past basic filtration and sewage systems, they increasingly break down into particles. These smaller particles, or microplastics (less than 0.5 millimeters), are then what enters our oceans and seas. Due to their size (or lack thereof!), they are consumed by marine organisms -- the most notable of which include various forms of plant microorganisms, such as phytoplankton.
Say what now?
Phytoplankton absorb or “inhale” carbon dioxide through photosynthesis as food, then release or “exhale” oxygen as a byproduct of the process. According to various studies, microplastics consumption is perceived to diminish their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. This in turn could limit our oceans’ ability to absorb significant quantities of carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases away from our atmosphere. Lesser CO2 absorption of the ocean means more heat that our atmosphere ends up trapping.
The more plastic we consume, the more plastic we could improperly dispose of. The more plastic that we improperly dispose of, the more greenhouse gas emissions we’ll create, and the more we compromise the natural systems our environment has against these emissions.
Check our Change the Current infographic below about plastic and climate change to learn more.
This blog is a collaboration among Klean Kanteen Philippines, SPS, and Danjugan Island.