How is plastic linked to the climate crisis?

Posted in: Environment

Posted on: 06.04.2021

It’s an understatement to say the world has a problem with plastic. In the UK alone we produce 5 million tonnes of the stuff a year – and only a quarter of this gets recycled.

Multiply this on a global scale, and it’s no surprise that the tens of millions of tonnes of plastic that get thrown away are causing environmental and health issues. Plastic waste has reached even the most remote parts of the world – washing up on uninhabited islands, has been found in Antarctica, on top of the world’s tallest mountains and even at the bottom of the Mariana trench.  

As a highly visible problem, it’s understandable that plastic pollution gets a lot of attention, with some arguing that it distracts from tackling the climate crisis. However, plastic isn’t an entirely separate issue. Here are three ways in which plastic production and pollution is directly contributing to the climate crisis – and how we can help fight it.

Plastic production

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

While demand for plastic keeps increasing, this carbon footprint will continue to grow. Fossil fuel giants such as Shell are responding to the prospect of reduced use of fossil fuels for energy and transport by investing in plastics, with production forecasted to double by 2040.

By mid-century, plastic is predicted to take up 13-17% of the planet’s carbon budget. As carbon emissions must reach net zero as soon as possible if we’re to limit global heating to 1.5oC, can we afford to expand production of a substance that is already polluting the water we drink and food we eat?

 

Oil wells in a snowy landscape

Plastic waste

Plastic in landfills

Plastic bags can take up to 100 years to decompose in landfill, and harder plastics take even longer. When organic waste such as leftover food is contained within plastic and buried in landfill, oxygen can’t get to it. The absence of oxygen causes organic waste to produce methane as it breaks down. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas – it can be captured to be used as biogas, but in the UK around 10 million tonnes of methane from landfill also escapes into the atmosphere each year.

Plastic incineration

Did you know that in the UK, nearly half of household waste is burnt for energy generation? One argument in favour of energy-from-waste is that it turns the things we throw away into a resource. However, there’s a big difference between feeding organic waste into an anaerobic digester to produce biogas, and simply incinerating refuse that includes oil-based substances like plastic.

An open letter by a coalition of campaigners including Good Energy partner Friends of the Earth found that, despite contributing just 2.4% of electricity generation in 2019, waste incineration was responsible for 13% of the sector’s carbon emissions. The campaigners argue that planned increases in waste incineration for energy are inefficient and incompatible with the UK’s net zero commitments.

Plastic in the environment

Every year, around 10 million tonnes of plastic ends 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. At the other end of the scale, microplastics from a range of sources - including synthetic fibres released by our laundry - are a growing cause of concern for scientists.

Microplastics are small enough to be absorbed by organisms such as phytoplankton, which are at the foundation of the ocean ecosystem. Plankton absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen - and is relied on by marine life right along the food chain. Researchers have found that plankton populations are decreasing, reducing the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink.

Sea bird surrounded by plastic waste.

How we can we solve our plastic problem?

Packaging is responsible for the largest proportion of plastic production, at 146 million tonnes worldwide in 2015. This includes the single use plastic that wraps the products millions of us buy each day.  Fortunately, there’s a lot that we can do to take action.

Reduce and reuse

There’s a reason these two come before ‘recycle’. The less plastic we need, the less needs to be produced in the first place. Simple swaps include reusable water bottles and bags, buying loose fruit and veg and using refill schemes for things like shampoo, soap and household cleaning products. Friends of the Earth have plenty more advice on cutting out plastic.

Recycle

Recycling one tonne of plastic saves roughly 5770 kWh of energy. This is comparable to the amount of electricity used by an average UK household over 2 years1.

Where it gets complicated is that there are lots of different types of plastic, and not all are widely recycled (yet). The good news is, most plastic packaging such as bottles and plastic food trays can be simply washed, dried, and put into kerbside recycling.

Don’t automatically throw out softer plastic such as films, packets and bread bags. While these aren’t often collected by local recycling services, you can return them to supermarkets and shops that have signed up with companies such as Terracycle, which recycles a wide range of more challenging materials.

Check out this guide from Which? for more advice on how to recycle plastic.

Make your voice heard

Trying to go completely plastic free takes time and money - and isn’t achievable for everyone. So as well as doing what you can yourself, support calls for change on a bigger scale.

For example, a campaign against synthetic microbeads publicised by Greenpeace helped get them banned in 2018. Look out for petitions, or support organisations such as City to Sea, who campaign for plastic producers and retailers to take responsibility for reducing plastic packaging and waste.

Support the transition to renewable energy

In a landmark report into lifecycle carbon emissions from plastic published in peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change in 2019, researchers found that, from production through to disposal, “replacing fossil-based energy with renewable sources had the greatest impact on plastic’s greenhouse gas emissions overall.” You can read the report summary here.

Put simply, the more of society that can be powered by renewables, the lower the impact of making, transporting, using and disposing of products will be.

Wind turbine in a patchwork of green fields.

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1 The UK’s typical ‘medium’ level of electricity consumption is 2,900 kWh a year.

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