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The Link Between Plastic And Climate Change

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We are now all aware of the two main crises that humanity is facing today: plastic pollution and climate change. What many people are not aware of, is the link between the two. In this blog, we are going to look at how plastic pollution is contributing to climate disruption, and the potential consequences that will arise from plastic pollution. 

Plastic Pollution

What is plastic pollution?

Plastic pollution is the buildup of plastic in the natural environment, which can be both on land and in our oceans. Plastic pollution on land is actually estimated to be 4-23 times as prevalent as that of oceanic plastic pollution. 

The reason for the focus being on oceanic pollution, is because the effects are more obvious. Many marine animals are ingesting plastic debris, which can lead to death. Sightings of whales and dolphins now washing up on beaches with their stomachs full of plastic, is sadly not uncommon.

When plastic is ingested by an animal, it can stay trapped in the digestive system, not being processed. This plastic can build up, eventually making the animal too sick to hunt, or the animal will think it's stomach is full of nutrition, so it won't feel the need to hunt. Both can result in starvation. 

Plastic Production And Climate 

Plastic pollution and climate change are two threats, that are intertwined. Let's start by talking a bit about exactly what plastic is, and why it the production contributes to climate disruption.

When we say 'plastic', we are referring to conventional plastic. Conventional plastics, such as PET, PP and PVC, are all produced from fossil fuels. They are also non biodegradable. This means that instead of breaking down into CO2, water and biomass, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. 

By being produced from fossil fuels, the process of producing plastic is already adding trapped carbon into circulation. Fossil fuels are composed of carbon which has been stored by the earth's natural thermal regulatory system, beneath the ground. The natural ecosystem stores carbon that was in the atmosphere, into carbon sinks.

The three general carbon sinks are plants, soil and the ocean. Carbon sinks are effectively reservoirs of carbon, which actively capture and store more carbon than they release. Plants capture carbon and store it via the process of photosynthesis. 

When fossil fuels are extracted from beneath the ground, it is bringing up carbon that has been stored for potentially millions of years. Carbon that is stored, cannot be carbon in the atmosphere. 

When fossil based plastic reaches its end of life processes, such as landfill or incineration, all this carbon that was stored deep in the ground is now released into the atmosphere. This adds to the overall carbon levels in the atmosphere, which contributes to global temperatures increasing. 

As well as bringing carbon into circulation that should remain stored by the earth's carbon sinks, the process of producing plastic in itself also releases plastic. Extraction processes, manufacturing processes and transportation all use fossil fuels, which immediately enter the atmosphere, again adding to the overall levels of carbon in the atmosphere, which should remain stored in order to keep the natural balance. 

Plastic Pollution And Climate

The other side of how plastic contributes to climate disruption, is plastic pollution. When plastic debris enters our oceans, the current rate of which is around 4.8 million tonnes a year, at a minimum.

When non biodegradable plastics break down, they eventually form microplastics, and then nanoplastics. There are two main climate related consequences of plastic pollution - microplastics emit greenhouse gases, and microplastics affect the productivity of the world's largest carbon sink: the ocean. 

Let's start by adding that there is a common misconception that all plastics, and compostable plastics in particular, do not break down in marine environments.

This is not true, and from what we can see, is a tactic from fossil based plastic manufacturers to reduce the popularity of compostable plastics. 

All plastics break down in the ocean to some extent, including compostable ones. There are several main mechanisms in which plastic can be broken down in the marine environment: by heat (thermolysis), by light (photolysis), by microorganisms (biolysis) and by water (hydrolysis). 

There have been studies carried out that shows PLA does break down in marine environments. 

What is true, is the fact that compostable plastics will typically take far longer to break down in the ocean, than in industrial composting facilities. 

When microplastics are formed, they continue to release greenhouse gases as part of their degradation. This is problematic as there is not a known method of removing 100% of microplastics from liquid, and even if there was, the entire ocean would have to be combed. 

The process of plastic polymers breaking down into smaller molecules such as methane is known as off-gassing. The creation of methane is bad, because methane has has a minimum GWP of 28.

GWP is short for global warming potential, which is the measure of how much energy the emissions of 1 ton of a gas will absorb over a given period of time, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide (CO2).

This means that methane, in comparison to Carbon dioxide, will roughly trap 28 times as much heat in the atmosphere. 

The more surface area non biodegradable plastic has access to, correlates to an increase of methane emission. This means that if a plastic water bottle has degraded completely into microplastics, as opposed to the macroplastic bottle in full form, methane will be released at a quicker rate. 

This leads to a vicious circle of degradation and greenhouse gas emission - the more the plastic breaks down, the more greenhouse gases are emitted. The more greenhouse gases are emitted, the more the plastic breaks down.

There is a method of removing a substantial percentage of microplastics from liquid, using ferrofluid. Hopefully, this method could be researched to reach a point of removing 100% of microplastics from liquid. 

The effect of microplastics on microscopic ocean life is worrying, and is also contributing to climate change. 

Microplastics inhibit the ability for phytoplankton and zooplankton to carry out their processes to capture carbon and metabolism respectively. Phytoplankton have been shown to fix and capture less carbon from the atmosphere, through the process of photosynthesis. 

When phytoplankton die, the carbon stored in them sinks to the depths of the ocean, storing the carbon, and playing a part in the process of the ocean being the world's largest carbon sink. 

When zooplankton eat phytoplankton, they too will also die, as well as producing fecal pellets. Both of these processes also result in carbon being stored in the ocean. 

Zooplankton have been shown to have decreased rates of survival chances, metabolism and reproductivity, when they ingest plastic. This means that two key mechanisms of the oceanic carbon sink are negatively affected by plastic pollution. 

Solutions

Both the production and pollution of conventional plastic contribute to climate disruption. So what can be done?

The obvious place to start: stop making conventional plastic. The media have placed a huge veil over the plastic pollution situation, in that they are never going after the companies producing the plastic in the first place. 

If we aren't to stop making plastic, then what's the point of trying to clean it up?

Imagine if you walked into your bathroom, and you saw the bath tap had been left on, and as a result your bathroom floor was flooded with overflowing water. The first thing you would do, is to turn the tap off. 

After you had turned the tap off, you would go about cleaning the floor. This is the same situation with plastic pollution. If we are to remove plastic from the environment, we need to stop the flow of it into the natural environment.

There are two main ways in which we can do this. The first of which is to have processes in place that result in zero plastic waste entering the natural environment.

The processes that are currently in place - recycling, landfill and incineration, are clearly not doing this, otherwise there wouldn't be the amount of plastic in the natural environment that we are currently seeing. 

Since it is unlikely for processes dealing with conventional plastic to reach a 100% success rate (only 9% of all plastic that has ever been made has been recycled), the only right answer is: stop making conventional plastic.

As the governments around the world are so wrapped up and funded by the fossil fuel industry, this process is unlikely to change anytime soon. 

This is where we, as consumers, come in. By demanding change, and stopping buying conventional plastic, the producers will have to change in order to keep up with the market demands of the consumer. 

In Conclusion

With this blog, we have shown how plastic and climate change are linked. If we are to move forward in decreasing the rate at which climate disruption is occurring, we must stop producing conventional plastic, and move to materials that have lower carbon footprints, and have processes that result in zero waste entering the natural environment. 

If you would like to read more about the effects of conventional plastic on the environment, feel free to subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.