Every year, the plastics industry generates waste that is almost equal to the weight of the entire human population. Most of this waste is either discarded or ends up in landfills.
Plastic waste and climate change are often seen as two separate entities, but a 2019 study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment says these two issues are fundamentally linked.
According to the researchers, every aspect of plastic, from its production to its waste, generates some form of harmful greenhouse gases that majorly contribute to climate change and global warming.
The production of plastic is a multi-step process. Firstly, plastics are extracted from fossil fuels – the combustion of fossil fuels during the extraction and transportation process produces significant greenhouse gases. Additionally, a lot of deforestation takes place to set up the pipeline system required for fossil fuel facilities.
The next step is the fastest growing industry in the manufacturing sector – plastics refining. Plastic refining is the crucial step where the main compounds that makeup plastic are derived. It is a greenhouse gas-intensive process and consumes a major chunk of energy.
Lastly, the most impactful is the mismanaged waste and degradation of plastic and its waste. In a Life Cycle Assessment conducted in 2019, it was found that the recycling, landfill, and burning of plastics contributed to 9% of the total plastics greenhouse gas emissions.
As waste plastic slowly breaks down, it releases methane and ethylene – which are greenhouse gases. A large amount of plastic waste finds its way into marine bodies and oceans, where it breaks down into smaller pieces, forming microplastics. Microplastics hinder the plankton’s ability to grow, reproduce and store carbon.
To illustrate the importance of plankton, they are responsible for producing at least 50% of the Earth’s oxygen. Not just that, they also capture carbon and sequester it in deep ocean sinks, preventing our planet from warming up to dangerous levels.
Thus, an ocean that generates less oxygen will create a vicious cycle of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which will ultimately result in the suffering of plants and animals, and finally, humans.
Ultimately, these factors result in destructive climate change patterns. If the rate of generated plastic and plastic waste continues, we face the danger of huge biodiversity losses, erratic weather patterns, and intolerable temperature increases.
Plastics are also a hazard to human health because the microplastics formed from plastic waste find their way into our food. Preliminary studies indicate that microplastics cause increased cancer risks and cytotoxicity, among other hazards.
And so, it becomes imperative that we start re-imagining a plastic-free future if we want to ensure the wellbeing of our planet and people.
Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.