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Plastic isn’t just scarring marine ecosystems - it's also contributing to climate change

Plastic Pollution Lifecycle.png

Image credit: Break Free from Plastic.  

While images of plastic-strewn beaches are OpenOceans Global’s way of creating awareness of the ocean plastic crisis, another more invisible threat from plastic is emerging: plastic's contributions to climate change.

As coal-fired power plants close and petrochemical infrastructure expands in the U.S., the plastic industry’s contribution to climate change has been projected to exceed that of coal by the year 2037.

Plastic contributes to climate change in the following ways (examples from various studies in this emerging field of research. Numbers are not additive. Numerals in parentheses indicate the source at the end of the list.):

  1. Extraction and transportation. “Extraction and transportation of fossil fuels is a carbon intensive activity emitting an estimated 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year to create feed stocks for virgin plastic.” (1)
  2. Fracking specifically. "By actual weight, the extraction of fracked gasses in the U.S. for plastics production at home and abroad releases at least 1.5 million tons of leaked methane each year. Because methane lingers for a dozen years in the atmosphere, these leaks are additive. They accumulate over time. In the standard EPA greenhouse gas accounting method, methane is considered to be 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, so 1.5 million tons of leaked methane has the impact of 37.5 million tons of CO2e gas releases -- about what is released by nineteen 500-MW coal-fired power plants." (6)
  3. Land disturbance. "About 19.2 million acres have been cleared for oil and gas development in the United States,” (1) including pipelines. “Assuming a third of the land is forested, 1.686 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere as a result of clearing." (1)
  4. Production emissions. “Each life cycle phase of plastics produces GHGs, with an estimated 61% of these emitted during the production phase.” (10)
  5. Plastic facilities. "More than 130 plastics facilities and related power plants report their emissions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), providing a baseline figure that at least 114 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) gas are released from them per year. This is roughly equivalent to 57 average sized (500-megawatt) coal-fired power plants. At least 42 plastics facilities have opened since 2019, are under construction, or are in the permitting process. If they become fully operational, these new plastics plants could release an additional 55 million tons of CO2e gasses – the equivalent of another twenty-seven 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants." (6)
  6. Refining of ethylene. Between 184.3 and 213 million metric tons of CO2e result from plastic refining of ethylene in the U.S. each year, equal to the amount 45 million passenger vehicles emit annually. (2)
  7. Incineration. Incineration of plastic results in the emissions of 5.9 million metric tons of CO2e in the U.S. annually. “Based on projections from the World Energy Council, if plastics production and incineration increase as expected, greenhouse gas emissions will increase to 49 million metric tons by 2030 and 91 million metric tons by 2050.” (1)
  8. Open burning. Open burning of waste is common in South Asia and the developing world. Burning waste in open fires produces black carbon which has a global warming potential up to 5,000 times greater than that of carbon dioxide (CO2). (3)
  9. Landfilling. “Plastics in landfills are also known to emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas” (10) While landfilling plastic has a lower climate impact than incineration, it contributes to environmental injustice. (1)
  10. Chemical recycling. "These facilities do not recycle. Most spend vast amounts of energy catalyzing chemical changes designed to turn plastics into more burnable fuel. The burning of plastics made in the U.S. already releases an estimated 15 million tons of greenhouse gasses. With this process, it will release far more. (6)
  11. Foam plastic insulation. “Each year, at least 27 million tons of CO2e gasses escape from foamed plastic insulation into the atmosphere.” (6)
  12. Exports of plastic. “Exports of gasses, resins, and other feed stocks for plastics manufacturing, and imports of overseas plastics and related chemicals, are causing at least 41 million tons of CO2e to be released per year.” (6)
  13. Breakdown of low-density polyethylene. One of the most common types of plastics found in the ocean, polyethylene – releases greenhouse gasses as it breaks down in the environment. (1)
  14. Degrading ocean photosynthesis. “Historically, ocean plankton has sequestered 30-50% of carbon dioxide emissions from human-related activities. Plankton are ingesting more microplastics which degrades plankton’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.” (1) “Marine microplastics can 1) affect phytoplankton photosynthesis and growth; 2) have toxic effects on zooplankton and affect their development and reproduction; 3) affect the marine biological pump; and 4) affect ocean carbon stock. Phytoplankton and zooplankton are the most important producer and consumer of the ocean.” (7)
  15. Ocean acidification. Absorption of CO2 in the ocean increases its acidity, a commonly known climate change impact. Plastic degradation contributes to ocean acidification via “the release of dissolved organic carbon compounds from both the plastic itself and its additives.” (4) “Aged plastic affects acidification much more than new plastic, which is very worrying, since most of the plastic found in the sea, whatever type it is, is degraded." (4)
  16. Carbon budget consumption. “If current trends continue, plastics will consume 15% of the global carbon budget by 2050. However, transitioning to sustainable waste management systems can save an estimated 15-20% of global GHG emissions.” (10)
  17. Emissions equivalence. “For 2018, the trade of eleven common globally traded plastic resins accounted for embodied GHG emissions comparable to the annual CO2 emissions from Italy or France, while the fossil energy demand was equivalent to 1.5 trillion tons of crude oil and the embedded carbon was equivalent to that of 118 MT of natural gas or 109 metric tons of petroleum.” (10)

Climate Change and Plastic Sources. The information above comes from review of these sources:

  1. How plastics contribute to climate change, Yale Climate Connections
  2. Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, Center for International Environmental Law
  3. 6 reasons to blame plastic pollution for climate change, World Bank
  4. Plastic degradation in the ocean contributes to its acidification,
  5. Plastics of the future will live many past lives, thanks to chemical recycling,
  6. The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change, Beyond Plastics
  7. Can microplastics pose a threat to ocean carbon sequestration? National Library of Medicine
  8. Plastics & Climate: How Single-Use Packaging is Fueling the Crisis, webinar video, Plastic Pollution Coalition
  9. Plastic Pollution Facts, Plastic Pollution Coalition
  10. Thomas Maes, Senior Scientist (Consultant) for GRIDArendal, presentation at a Global Partnership on Marine Litter webinar, October 6, 2022


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