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It’s no secret that plastic production is terrible for the environment, we hear about it all the time and it has been reiterated over and over again by policymakers, scientists, as well as popular naturalists such as Sir David Attenborough. 

In this month’s article, we draw attention to the harmful effect plastic has on our environment — harming marine and human health, littering beaches and landscapes and how is it linked to our global climate crisis.

Climate change and plastics pollution both represent a significant threat to the health of the planet’s ecosystems, and the two are inextricably linked. In 2019, the global plastic production added more than 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – the equivalent of 189 coal-fired power plants! If this continues it is estimated that by 2050, the accumulation of these gases will account for up to 13% of the total remaining carbon budget. 

In the UK alone we produce five million tonnes of the stuff a year – and only a quarter of this gets recycled, it’s an understatement to say the world has a problem with plastic production.

Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage of the plastic lifecycle.

The four stages include:

  1. Fossil fuel extraction and transport
  2. Plastic refining and manufacture
  3. Managing plastic waste
  4. Plastic’s ongoing impact once it reaches our oceans, waterways, and landscape.

Over 90% of plastic is made from oil and gas. Extracting, transporting and refining these fuels results in annual carbon emissions equal to those of 189 coal-fired power stations.

While the demand for plastic keeps increasing, this carbon footprint will continue to grow.

Below is just one example of how plastic production and pollution are directly contributing to the climate crisis:

Plastics vs The Environment

Plastic bags can take up to 100 years to decompose in landfill, and harder items take even longer. Decomposing plastic generates greenhouse gases such as ethylene and methane, which are 25 times more effective at trapping heat energy in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The plastic itself isn’t the only source of methane. If organic waste is thrown away wrapped in plastic and buried in landfill, oxygen can’t get to it. This means that when it breaks down, it will generate even more methane.

Every year, around 10 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean, where it has formed enormous waste patches such as the Pacific Trash Vortex, which is three times the size of France.  

“The plastic littering of our ocean is an atrocity. Plastic has now been found on the most remote places in the ocean, from the deepest trenches to the Arctic Sea ice and halfway down the water columns at 2000 metres. It’s probably more difficult now to find a place where there is no plastic than to find plastic.”

– Erik van Sebille, oceanographer & climate scientist.

Reduce & Reuse

But how can we resolve our plastic problem? Packaging is responsible for the largest proportion of plastic production, with the UK producing 2.5 thousand tonnes of packaging waste in 2021. This includes single-use plastic from the products that millions of us buy each day.  Fortunately, there’s a lot that we can do to take action.

By simply swapping for reusable water bottles and bags, buying loose fruit and veg and using refill schemes for things like shampoo, soap and household cleaning products is one way to make a significant difference over time.

The impacts of mismanaged plastic waste on the climate, as well as on livelihoods and ecosystems, are an urgent development challenge.


Environmental war on plastic

If you missed our previous blog on Renewable Energy: Discussing the myths and mysteries of solar energy check it out.