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The plastics crisis is a climate crisis hiding in plain sight

Imagine a Venn diagram representing, arguably, the two most prominent environmental issues of the day: climate change and plastic pollution. That little overlapping section, and the question of how they’re interrelated, is the subject of today’s blog.

The simple answer is fossil fuels, of course, but as you’ll see the devil is in the detail.

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Houston, we have a climate problem

The signs of an impending tipping point in our climate have been all too apparent over the past year. In October, leading climate scientists published a landmark UN report warning that we have just 12 years to limit catastrophic climate change. Since then we’ve discovered that Antarctic ice is melting much faster than previously feared, global atmospheric CO2 levels have hit a record 415 parts per million, and the 5 hottest years on record all came in the last 5 years (and, yes, we’re on track to make it 6 for 6).

Public awareness is also at a record high – in response to these revelations, we’ve seen the metamorphosis of Extinction Rebellion into a global movement, the astonishing rise of Greta Thunberg to climate change superstar and figurehead for the youth climate movement, and declarations of ‘climate emergency’ in 669 jurisdictions across 15 countries.


Cradle-to-grave carbon impact

How does plastic fit into this? According to a recent scientific study (May 2019) by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL), plastic creates carbon emissions at every stage of its lifecycle, from production through to the way it is managed as a waste product.

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Plastic is made from fossil fuels

Approximately 8% of global oil consumption is devoted to the creation of plastic. As such, it’s responsible for carbon emissions associated with the extraction and transport of fossil fuel, for example emissions from drilling activities or pipeline leaks.

Plastic refining – the lengthy chemical process of turning oil or gas into raw plastic resin – is the most carbon intensive part of the plastic lifecycle. To put it into context, the annual emissions from the two new plastic refining facilities that are currently being built in the US will be equivalent to adding almost 800,000 cars to the road. On top of that, more energy is then used to manufacture products from the plastic resin.

Perhaps least understood, though, is the carbon impact associated with plastic at the end of its useful life. Regardless of how it is disposed of all plastic has a carbon impact at end of life. Even when it isn’t recycled or incinerated it has a detrimental impact on the environment as it degrades. Astonishingly, plastic left to degrade in the natural environment like this represents a whopping two-thirds of all of the plastic we’ve created since 1950! Research has shown that many plastics emit powerful greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane and ethylene, as they break down. The more surface area a piece of plastic has, the more gas it gives off, which is a problem because its surface area increases as it breaks up into lots of pieces. A plastic bottle, for example, will have a surface area thousands of times greater than its original surface area, after several years of degradation.

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The resulting climate impact is difficult to quantify, but with an estimated 57 trillion plastic particles floating at the ocean’s surface continually releasing small amounts of greenhouse gases, it’s a cause for concern.


We’ve created a monster

Credit where credit is due – plastic is an amazing material! It’s strong, lightweight, pliable and incredibly cheap. We’ve become addicted, perhaps understandably, and we’re now producing more of it than ever before. In fact, our demand for plastic is accelerating, with no signs of slowing down – half of all plastic produced in the past 70 years was produced in the last 13 years, and plastic production is expected to quadruple by 2050.

To put that into climate context, producing this much plastic by 2050 would put another 56 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, or almost 50 times the annual emissions of all of the coal power plants in the US today.

Plastic is among the most significant and rapidly growing sources of industrial carbon emissions, and with major expansions in plastic production being planned by petrochemical and plastic industries the climate problem is on track to get a whole lot worse.


Material revolution

So, where do we go from here? As a species, we desperately need to re-evaluate our relationship with plastic. In simple terms we need to reduce our demand for single-use, disposable plastic, in favour of more sustainable, reusable products and packaging, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Many of our systems of consumption are so established that to disrupt them requires simultaneous action from multiple stakeholders.

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Citadel 2019: Overflowing waste bins highlight typical challenges to collection, separation, and recycling of single-use food and drinks containers.

Festivals are a good example because they bring our hedonistic consumerism into sharp focus like nothing else – as well as being a neat segue back to the reason we’re here, of course. Efforts to accelerate the transition to plastic-free festivals must be collaborative – festival organisers, vendors, drinks companies, regulators and festival goers all have a part to play and will need to challenge and adjust established practices and procedures in concert to bring about the change we all want to see in the world.