What is the connection between plastic pollution and U.S. Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the melting of Antarctic glaciers, Australian summer heat waves and coastal erosion, and other natural disasters that are hitting humans more frequently? We blame climate change on plastic pollution. However, the contribution of plastic waste and the plastics industry to climate change is often less well known or greater and ignored.
We are surrounded by plastic waste – it is in the air we breathe, in the ice of Mount Everest glaciers, in the water we drink, in the fish we eat and, more recently, even in the human placenta. During its life cycle, plastic can also have indirect negative effects that are neither visible nor obvious.
As world leaders, scientists, investors and activists gather in Glasgow, UK, for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), six facts linking the life cycle of plastics to climate change must be considered.
1. Extraction and production: Most people do not recognize that plastics originate from fossil fuels. In fact, the plastics industry consumes about 6 percent of global oil consumption, and this share is expected to reach 20 percent by 2050. Because of the energy-intensive processes required to extract and refine plastics from petroleum, plastics production generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.
2. Consumption: Most people think that if you throw plastic in the recycling bin, it will go away. However, it doesn’t disappear because only 9% of the world’s plastic waste is recycled, with the rest being thrown into the natural environment. In fact, South Asia is the world’s largest producer of plastic waste, with more than 26 million tons of plastic waste discarded daily. The region also has one of the largest shares of open dumping in the world, with 75 percent of this waste.
3. End of life: If not recycled or disposed of in a controlled manner, discarded plastic waste can generate greenhouse gas emissions in the air and water when exposed to solar radiation. The 18 million tons of plastic waste generated in South Asia is not properly managed and consequently washes up in the ocean, emitting methane and ethylene when exposed to sunlight. As one of the most produced and discarded synthetic polymers in the world, polyethylene emits the largest amount of methane and ethylene.
4. Recycling and closed-loop management: Even though recycling has the potential to significantly reduce the environmental impact of plastic pollution and its contribution to climate change, only 5% of the total plastic waste generated in South Asia is recycled. The circular economy principles of the AIR (Avoid, Intercept, Redesign) model applied to the cement, aluminum, steel, and plastics industries could reduce the combined emissions of these industries by 40%.
5. Ocean waste: Every minute, the equivalent of one garbage truck’s worth of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean worldwide. This is an extremely alarming situation. Marine litter pollutants are broken down into microplastics that can contribute to climate change directly through greenhouse gas emissions and indirectly through negative impacts on marine microbes. Plankton can sequester 30-50% of CO2 emissions from human activities, but their ability to remove CO2 from the air is diminished after ingesting microplastics.
6. Open burning: Open burning is a common form of waste disposal in countries in the South Asian region and other developing countries. India and Nepal burn 8.4% of the world’s waste. Open burning of garbage can produce black carbon, a serious air pollutant, and is responsible for half of the naked-eye haze in cities like New Delhi. Black carbon has the potential to contribute 5,000 times more to global warming than carbon dioxide.
The impact of plastic waste mismanagement on climate, livelihoods and ecosystems poses a major and urgent development challenge.
The impact of plastic waste mismanagement on climate, livelihoods, and ecosystems poses an urgent development challenge. To address this issue, innovative and targeted circular economy models need to be identified. Circular economy models begin at the product design and raw material selection stage and aim to develop optimal products that can be reused, create “renewable resources” and minimize the need for final disposal of waste and extraction of virgin materials.
The good news is that there are more and more cases of this model being adopted in South Asia. At all train stations in India, tea will soon be served in fully biodegradable, eco-friendly clay cups instead of plastic ones. Spider silk film and seaweed are replacing plastic in several products, such as disposable Ziploc bags, which account for up to 50 percent of total household plastic waste. In the Maldives, an innovative collaboration between Parley for the Oceans and Adidas is bringing recycled ocean plastic into the global sportswear supply chain. Such innovations and partnerships demonstrate that groundbreaking solutions to the problems of ocean plastic and climate change both exist and can be scaled up.
Post time: Sep-01-2022