Greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten our ability to rein in our emissions.
It’s light. It’s cheap. It’s convenient. It costs you nothing or barely anything. You use it once and then dispose of it without a backward glance. What can be more convenient than that?
It’s precisely their low cost, ease of manufacture and versatility that have made single-use plastic products so ubiquitous the world over. Yet these products exact a heavy toll on the environment and it’s not just in the form of rampant plastic pollution.
“Plastic is one of the most ubiquitous materials in the economy and among the most pervasive and persistent pollutants on Earth,” note the authors of “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet,” a new report by the Center for International Environmental Law. “It has become an inescapable part of the material world, flowing constantly through the human experience in everything from plastic bottles, bags, food packaging, and clothing to prosthetics, car parts, and construction materials.”
The trouble is that during their short lifecycle, from manufacture to transportation and use to disposal, single-use plastic products create a vast carbon footprint, which is often overlooked. “After the extraction of fossil fuels to produce plastic, the carbon footprint of a material which has become ubiquitous across the globe continues through the refining process, and on well past its useful life as a drinks bottle or plastic bag, through the way it is disposed of and the plastic afterlife,” the authors write.
In fact, single-use plastics, of which billions and billions are produced and then discarded each year in the form of shopping bags and other disposable items, leave a massive carbon footprint. Almost all plastic products are made from fossil fuels and refining those fuels into plastics is an energy-intensive process that is driving up global emissions.
And that’s just for starters. Because single-use plastics are cheap and versatile products, demand for them has been growing at an ever faster pace. In 2015, for instance, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic were produced. Most of those products have long since been dumped with two-thirds of them ending up in the environment, including the oceans. And that was just one year.
Plastics used in packaging take an especially heavy toll on the environment, both as waste and as producers of emissions. “Packaging is one of the most problematic types of plastic waste, as it is typically designed for single use, ubiquitous in trash, and extremely difficult to recycle,” the experts note.
“A constant increase in the use of flexible and multilayered packaging has been adding challenges to collection, separation, and recycling,” they add, noting that some 40% of plastic packaging ends up in landfills, while only around 14% of it is collected and recycled. Vast amounts of plastic packaging is Incinerated, which too drives CO2 emissions and pollutes the air with toxic chemicals.
“At current levels, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 [degrees Celsius],” the experts add. “With the petrochemical and plastic industries planning a massive expansion in production, the problem is on track to get much worse.”