A Look at Plastic’s Impact on Climate Change

a rainbow of ocean plastic garbage

(Credit: Unsplash.com)

by | Jan 29, 2024

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Plastic, often seen as a ubiquitous and convenient material, holds a darker reality. Surpassing the combined emissions of the entire aviation and shipping industries, plastic contributes a staggering 2 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually, accounting for 3.4% of global emissions.

This alarming statistic underscores a critical truth: addressing climate change necessitates a radical reduction in the production, usage, and disposal of plastic.

Oil Extraction: The Unsustainable Bedrock of Plastic Production

The link between plastic and oil extraction is profound. A significant 14% of all extracted oil is destined for plastic production, a figure that not only reflects its environmental cost but also its unsustainable nature. This reliance on oil, particularly as energy companies pivot toward plastic production, highlights an urgent need for change.

Production: An Emission-Heavy Process

According to an article on CleanHub, about 60% of plastic’s emissions can be traced back to its production phase. The industry, predominantly based in economically prosperous nations like China, Canada, Mexico, and the United States, exemplifies a critical paradox: economic gain at the expense of environmental degradation and localized pollution.

Despite the emergence of biobased plastics, the industry remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels, with only a small fraction coming from recycled materials.

The journey of plastic, from creation to disposal, is marred by emissions, with 29% occurring during distribution. The high demand for plastic, primarily for packaging, necessitates extensive logistics and transportation, further impacted by fossil fuels. This cycle perpetuates the emission problem, with plastic production and packaging feeding into each other in a detrimental loop.

Disposal Dilemma: From Landfills to Microplastics

The disposal of plastic presents its own set of challenges. With only 9% of global plastic waste being recycled, and a mere 4% in the U.S., the majority of plastic ends up in landfills or incinerators, contributing to pollution and emissions. The U.S. alone channels 29 million tons of plastic into landfills annually, where it degrades slowly, releasing harmful methane and ethylene.

The fast fashion industry exacerbates the plastic problem. Contributing significantly to carbon emissions and microplastic pollution, fast fashion relies heavily on synthetic materials like polyester. The environmental impact is profound, with a considerable portion of these products ending up in landfills or contributing to the ocean’s microplastic pollution.

Plastic and Nature: A Deadly Confluence

Plastic’s impact extends beyond just emissions. It poses a lethal threat to more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals annually, with ingestion and entanglement leading to fatalities. The pervasive nature of plastic affects an estimated 700 species, disrupting natural habitats and endangering biodiversity.

The most effective strategy against plastic pollution is reducing consumption. Simple changes like opting for fabric tote bags, reusable water bottles, and coffee cups can significantly impact. Shifting consumer behavior, particularly in high-consumption sectors like cosmetics, is crucial for environmental sustainability.

Fostering a Circular Economy: A Sustainable Solution

Transitioning toward a circular economy, where reuse and recycling are prioritized, presents a more sustainable path forward.

In this model, products are designed with environmental impacts in mind, promoting sharing, lending, and repairing over disposal.

While reducing future plastic waste is imperative, dealing with the current pollution levels is equally crucial. Efforts like CleanHub’s initiatives to reduce business plastic footprints and increase recycling are steps in the right direction. However, global cooperation and increased recycling infrastructure are needed to make a significant impact.

For the plastics that cannot be recycled, finding greener disposal methods is essential. CleanHub’s co-processing approach, which uses plastic waste in cement production, illustrates innovative thinking in reducing plastics’ environmental impact. However, continued research and development are necessary to discover and implement more effective solutions.

The plastic problem is a multifaceted challenge that intertwines with the larger issue of climate change. Addressing it requires a holistic approach, encompassing reduced consumption, innovative recycling, and sustainable disposal methods.

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