Why is plastic considered to be a major contributor? Over the last century the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is among the gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect. Although there are others, such as methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor, the tremendous increase in the production of plastics has disproportionately increased the carbon dioxide being emitted. Although historically changes in CO2 concentrations tended to occur over hundreds or thousands of years, we have managed to achieve even larger changes than in the past over a matter of decades.
Since plastic first came on the scene in the 1800s, the forms of plastic have increased to meet diverse needs. Because plastic is not biodegradable to any significant degree, the bottom line today is that the enormous amounts of plastic being used and discarded across the globe are contributing to climate change and impacting the health and well-being of people and animals.
For decades countries exported their plastic waste to China. It was inevitable that China’s processing facilities would reach a saturation point. The European Union exported 95% and the United States 70% of their plastic waste to China prior to 2018 when China banned the import of most plastics with its “National Sword” policy. China’s imports were reduced by 99%. The question which begs to be answered is how will the European Union, the United States, and others handle their waste now?
Before exporting of plastic waste was banned, only 21% of plastics that had been discarded were either being recycled or burned. Of all plastics produced since inception, 60% are now in landfills or found in the natural environment. According to a study by a team of researchers at the University of Hawaii concerning plastics discarded into landfills and the natural environment, the “release of greenhouse gases from virgin and aged plastic over time indicates that polymers continue to emit gases to the environment for an undetermined period.”
Increased Use and Discarding of Plastics
The more disposable forms of plastics offered to the consumer, the more plastics will accumulate in landfills and in the natural environment. Consumers are enticed by the attributes of plastic. These items are considered to be durable and safe, hard-wearing, lightweight, and economical. For manufacturer, the cost of plastic items or parts is considerably less than its glass, metal, or wood counterpart. Economics and convenience are the leading causes of the growing problem of plastic pollution.
Impact on the Planet
Impact on Oceans
An estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste are in our oceans, killing at least 100 million marine animals each year. A report by the United Nations has claimed that by 2025, the oceans will contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish, and by the year 2050, the plastic waste will outweigh the fishes present in all the oceans of the world. The oceans make up 70% of the Earth’s surface, which means that plastic pollution is an issue which must be addressed globally by governments, industry, and individuals.
Microplastics are plastic waste less than five millimeters in length which come from a variety of sources, including the breakdown of plastic debris like plastic bags and the shedding of microfibers from synthetic materials. Thirty percent of plastic pollution in the oceans come from microplastics, acting as sponges for other pollutants, and are eventually ingested by ocean creatures that enter the human food chain and can cause serious health effects.
Plastic waste also leaches chemicals into the oceans and endangers marine ecosystems. A 2019 study indicates that these chemicals are toxic to the ocean's most abundant photosynthetic bacteria, Prochlorococcus, which produce 10% of the oxygen we breathe.
Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Royer, lead author of a 2018 University of Hawaii study, spoke to the Surfrider Foundation about why plastic pollution has become such a contributor to climate change. “Many everyday items, including grocery bags, 6-pack rings, sandwich and snack bags, strawberry containers, and plastic wrap are made of LDPE,” the most prolific emitter of greenhouse gases. When you consider how many of those items you throw away over the course of a week and then multiply that by everyone in the United States alone, it becomes an overwhelming amount of plastic waste lying in landfills, the environment, and yes, in the oceans.
Impact on the Land
The ocean plastic pollution problem can only be solved if society puts a stop to plastic pollution on land. “Plastic pollution is not just an oceans issue. It’s a climate issue and it’s a human health issue,” according to Claire Arkin, communications coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a global network aiming to reduce pollution and eliminate waste incineration.
The extracting and transportation of the fossil fuels required for the production of plastics are estimated to emit an average of 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities. The cutting down of trees to provide “right of way” zones for pipelines adds to the carbon dioxide emissions that would have been absorbed by the trees.
The Center for International Environmental Law, a nonprofit environmental law organization, contends that plastics originate as fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases from cradle to grave, meaning that the increasing reliance on plastics will account for 40% of the global oil consumption by 2050.
Why Greenhouse Gases Matter
The Carbon Cycle describes the process in which carbon atoms continually travel from the atmosphere to the Earth and then back into the atmosphere. Since the mid-1800s human activity has increased emissions of greenhouse gases beyond the ability of the processes within the global carbon cycle to absorb carbon.
The increasing greenhouse gas concentrations tend to warm the planet. The rising temperatures can produce changes in precipitation patterns, storm severity, and sea levels, resulting in what we term climate change. Besides rising temperatures, the gases are causing changes in ocean acidification and deoxygenation, which lead to changes in oceanic circulation and chemistry as well as changes in the diversity and abundance of marine specimens.
Nearly all plastics are created from materials like ethylene and propylene, which are made from mostly oil and gas. Extracting these fuels and then manufacturing the plastic creates billions of tons of greenhouse gases. The more plastic we make, the more fossil fuels we need, the more we exacerbate climate change.
Globally, researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic at the current rate will pump more than 2.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2050.
Effects of Plastic Pollution on Local Economies
As a result of plastic pollution in the environment and the oceans, local economies suffer as well. The littering of the oceans affects tourism as beaches become littered with waste that has washed ashore. The damage to marine life impacts the fishing industry and the food supplies of local communities. It’s amazing to realize that forty percent of the world’s population are in coastal communities.
China’s “National Sword” ban has forced communities to scramble to handle the excess waste. Unfortunately, with waste not being able to be exported, small towns and rural areas are not financially able to operate recycling facilities and are shutting them down. Larger cities are curtailing much of their recycling. Many U.S. processing facilities and municipalities have either had to pay more to recycle or simply discard the waste.
“The economics are challenging,” says Nilda Mesa, director of the Urban Sustainability and Equity Planning Program at the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. “If there is not a market for the recycled material, then the numbers do not work for these facilities as well as cities, as they need to sell the materials to recoup their costs of collection and transportation, and even then it’s typically only a portion of the costs.”
Although some support incinerating plastic in a Waste to Energy process to generate heat, electricity, and hot water12, others believe that incineration creates more problems than it resolves. Besides contributing to the issues we have already discussed, waste incinerators are generally built near marginalized communities. The emissions create health problems which in turn overburden the healthcare facilities.
How Do We Fix It?
Cities And Countries Have To Take The Lead
Many cities in the United States like San Francisco, Austin, and Los Angeles as well as many other countries, such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan are working hard to employ programs that encourage residents to recycle. All of these places have applaudable goals to curtail plastic waste and even reach zero waste.
Strategies employed involve education, incentives and penalties as well as legislation. According to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, last year alone more than thirty-seven states in the United States have bills in motion to deal with plastic pollution and recycling.
The European Commission has urged its member countries to approve bans on single-use plastics. Worldwide, 127 countries have banned some, but not all, kinds of plastics. The U.S. has proposed legislation that would put the responsibility for plastic waste management on producers.. Currently, it is still in Committee. The law, if enacted, would establish a national Pigouvian tax on carryout bags and refund customers who return beverage containers. A Pigouvian tax places a tax on any activity that creates socially harmful externalities, such as those on gas, noise, and carbon.
Many European countries are burning plastic in a growing number of Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plants. The plants use the heat to make steam to generate electricity.
India’s road-building using shredded plastic waste to make polymer glues was not a new idea. However, unlike in the United States where polymer roads are made with asphalt that comes pre-mixed with a polymer, plastic tar roads are a more frugal invention. These roads are made with a discarded, low-grade polymer. Every kilometer of this kind of road uses the equivalent of 1m plastic bags, saving around one ton of asphalt and costing roughly 8% less than a conventional road. The process uses lightweight, single-use items like shopping bags and foam packaging which are impossible to recycle as the ideal raw material.
For Real Progress To Be Made, However, Individuals Must Get Onboard
Recycling is, of course, a valuable effort toward dealing with plastic pollution, but the most effective will be the reduction of the amount of plastic that is discarded every year.
How can this be done?
• Buy well-made clothes and other products that utilize plastic in their manufacture.
• Avoid single-use items when buying kitchen products and beauty products.
• Save plastic bags for reuse.
• Avoid items that come individually wrapped.
• Use reusable water bottles and use tap water instead of bottled.
• Use reusable filters in your coffeemaker.
• Take reusable bags with you to the grocery.
• Don’t waste food that will end up in landfills.
• Don’t LITTER!
The three R’s of sustainability are described as “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.” An additional component of this process should be composting. Composting is organic material that can be added to the soil to help plants grow. You don’t have to have a yard compost; it can be accomplished indoors. You can find instructions on what to include and how to do this at https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home.
The bottom line for addressing plastic pollution involves education of individuals and industries about the plastics crisis and its overwhelming contribution to climate change. Individuals can recycle, reduce use of plastics, reuse items, compost, and shift to natural alternatives where possible. Industries should focus on redesigning products and processes to minimize their carbon footprint. Cities and industries should set and enforce ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gases by seeking zero waste in all areas, not just in plastic production.
Prepared by Heart Song Ghostwriting