A line of research looks at ways to cut the carbon footprint of plastics down to as little as possible.
Some scientists have come up with a way to make infinitely recyclable plastics. Other scientists are out to pull off another ambitious feat: making plastic production and disposal carbon neutral.
A new paper in Nature Climate Change looks at ways to cut the carbon footprint of plastics. The authors suggest four strategies to succeed globally in that endeavor: a shift towards renewable energy, the quick spread of truly biodegradable plastics, rising recycling levels, and ultimately cutting down on global demand for plastics.
Plastic production has skyrocketed in the past few decades, yet only 9% of the material is recycled with the rest mostly burned or landfilled. And though the impacts of plastics on ecosystems and human health have been studied extensively, scientists are only starting to discover its links to climate change.
The authors started from calculating emissions from the life-cycle of fossil fuel-based and bio-based plastics, looking for ways to lower emissions. What they discovered is that vast emissions result from the various stages from initial production to final disposal or incineration. Even recycling was found to be a highly emission-heavy industry.
According to their findings, in 2015 alone fossil fuel-based plastics accounted for 3.8% of global emissions. If current manufacturing and consumer trends continue, the number could easily rise to 15% by 2050.
A smart mix of outlined strategies would help to tackle the dynamics from various perspectives, but only combining them can get the footprint as close to zero as possible. For example, switching to renewable energy to produce plastics would already mean a 50% reduction, while smart recycling would help to address another 25%.
Meanwhile, a total switch towards sugarcane-based plastics and reducing overall global demand supported by the two previous strategies could help to get emissions to as little as 7% of emissions in the business-as-usual scenario by 2050.
The findings also underline the importance of nexus approaches to sustainability action. No single strategy can work wonders but a set of effectively interlinked ones is a prerequisite for positive outcomes. The authors emphasize the need for “integrating energy, materials, recycling and demand-management strategies to curb growing life-cycle GHG emissions from plastics.”
The researchers hope that their findings will help decisionmakers and companies to understand and utilize the leverage points of plastics’ impacts on the planet and the climate.