Plastic use and waste is a looming problem for humans, the planet and climate change. Plastics are incredibly useful, but come at a high environmental cost; they damage and contaminate food chains, and take a very long time to break down in nature. The carbon footprint of the plastic industry, and plastics in general is massive. Almost every piece of plastic that exists today has emitted greenhouse gases (GHG) at every stage of its production and use.
In 2019, nearly a gigaton of greenhouse gases were emitted due to plastic production and use. By 2050, unless our current route changes, plastics are expected to produce up to 2.8 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. To put that into perspective, if plastic production continues unabated and continues to expand, plastic production alone, will account for 13% of our total remaining (and quickly shrinking) global carbon budget by the year 2050.
Approximately 40% of all plastic waste comes from packaging alone. Of this, 20.6% is recycled, 20.6% is incinerated, 31% ends up at the landfill, and 27.8% is unmanaged. Not only does incineration release a significant amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), it also releases hazardous chemicals into the environment. As landfilled plastics break down, they can be carried off into the atmosphere by winds or leached into the soil or underground water reserves, contaminating them with microplastics and heavy metals found in plastics. Plastic that makes it way into the ocean continues to release greenhouse gases, especially methane, at the ocean's surface. Current estimates of this GHG release accounts for only 1% of plastic in the ocean, but as of today, there remains a lack of information and studies to know the exact amount. Not only does plastic in the ocean continually release greenhouse gases, it also threatens entire ocean ecosystems and food chains with microplastic contamination - directly affecting the oceans’ ability to store carbon. This is extremely concerning because the ocean is our largest carbon sink, and it has contained 20-40% of all carbon emissions since the 1850’s. Any negative changes to its ability to store carbon are worrying to say the least.
Recycling has long been touted as the answer for managing plastic waste. This unfortunately, is just not the case right now, nor will it likely ever be the complete solution. Recycling plastic requires many steps; from collection and transport, to processing and re-manufacture, the monetary and environmental cost of recycling is high. Coupled with relatively cheap costs of virgin plastic materials produced in ever increasing amounts, recycling processes are rarely profitable and require significant government subsidization for them to even exist. Due to such limitations only 9% of all discarded plastics have been recycled, the rest has been burned, buried, or scattered across our globe contaminating our atmosphere, waterways, biomes, and oceans. While recycling plastic has a lot of potential in mitigating plastic pollution and lowering GHG emissions, it doesn’t yet come close to solving the problem. So until we can recycle all of the plastic waste we generate, we have to do something else.
The most direct thing an individual can do about the plastic problem is practice ethical consumerism; incorporate questions about plastic packaging and plastic content when considering what to buy. Is this plastic waste worth the use I am getting out of this item? Are there alternatives to the single use plastic items I use? Is the plastic in this packaging actually recyclable, or will it end up in a landfill or incinerator, or worse the natural areas I love?
This is what the challenge for April is all about. Refuse everything plastic that you are able to, and for everything else use an alternative - a reusable water bottle, a metal straw, a bamboo toothbrush. Any waste or plastic that cannot be refused or replaced should be recyclable, make sure that it is, and make sure it ends up at a recycling depot!
To read the source material for this blog post, or to learn more about plastic, and its relationship to climate change and human health check out these reports: