What comes to your mind when I say the phrase ‘plastic pollution’? I am sure thoughts include beaches and oceans littered with plastic items, as well as marine animals ingesting plastics or being trapped in them. Many of us may be quick to overlook the fact that plastics and climate change are connected, both in plastics production and after use.
Plastic and Fossil Fuels
Almost all (99%) of plastics are produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, predominantly natural gas and oil. Coal can also be used but it is currently less economically beneficial (CIEL, 2017). The majority of fossil material goes on to become fuel, and another part is sent for chemical production, including the production of plastics (CIEL, 2017).
The fossil fuel used depends on the region, their fossil fuel feedstock and the energy price. In Europe and Asia they use oil based feedstocks, with 6% of global oil consumption contributing to the creation of plastics (World Economic Forum, 2016). Whereas in North America and the Middle East, natural gas is the source predominantly used to produce plastics.
The fossil fuel companies who have and still are contributing extensively to the climate crisis, have a direct connection with the plastic pollution issue we now face. Many of the large players in the fossil fuel industry such as Exxon Mobil and Shell, are companies integrated in the production of fossil fuels and plastics, due to the close relationship and nature of the processes. Since 2010, companies, including fossil fuel companies, have pumped $180 billion into new “cracking” facilities which produce the raw materials used to make plastics (Guardian, 2017). Supplying these chemicals to these facilities has been a way for the fossil fuel companies to make money off of a waste stream. The more plastic we use, inadvertently the greater the demand for fossil fuels.
Plastic and, Demand and Supply
It is important to understand how the demand for plastic and fossil fuels are expected to change, and the impacts that this has on supply. This helps us to better understand the associated links between the two (plastic and fossil fuels), and subsequently climate change.
We can look at three aspects when looking at the growth of the plastic market: the demand from the consumer for plastics, the demand for oil and gas, and the energy price/ the availability of cheap fossil fuel feedstocks for making plastic.
Demand for plastic is predicted to grow, this includes single-use, disposable plastics. Last year 8.3 billion (bn) tonnes of plastic was manufactured and this is projected to rise to 34bn by 2050. This expected demand growth is thought to come from millennials and the global south (CIEL, 2018). This means countries like the U.S. will look to export plastics to these developing markets despite the fact that they lack the waste management infrastructure to tackle the associated issues, which is another issue in itself.
We are told that to meet our climate targets, an energy transition to clean energy and renewables must take place. If we follow this idea, there will be decreased demand for oil and gas, meaning that the cost for the upstream processes of making plastic will be passed onto the plastic producers, reducing supply. Unfortunately, we have seen the U.S. distance itself from the Paris Accord and it is continuing its pursuit of fossil fuel extraction. This has contributed to the increased exploration of fracking and therefore the greater supply of the natural gas, and subsequently the raw materials that create plastics.
The production of plastic also depends on the energy price in that particular region where they are sourced . We have seen that in the US, the surge in natural gas production from shale has resulted in cheap fossil fuel feedstocks to create plastic resins. Since the cost of the raw materials used in the process has dropped, naturally so has the price of plastics.
Plastic and After-Use
Photo | Louis Hansel | Unsplash
Approximately 8 million tonnes of plastic pollution enters the ocean each year. Recent research from the University of Hawaii has shown that plastics in the ocean, break down and can give off greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is a concern as it is one of most prevalently discarded plastics, which also releases gases at the highest rate (Parley, 2018). LDPE breaks down more easily than other plastics due to its weaker chemical structure. The more pieces an item breaks down into, the more gas it releases due to the increased surface area.
Light and heat (to a lesser extent) drive gas release for these plastics, so as climate change heats the oceans, more gas will be released from these plastic pieces, contributing to climate change and so on and so forth, creating a feedback loop (Parley, 2018). One of the gases identified by the team was methane, which is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So, not only is the production and consumption of plastic that ends in the ocean a pollution issue, it is also a climate issue.
What can we you do?
Reduce the amount of plastic products you consume. The predictions in the growth of demand for plastic fails to take into account the change in behaviours of people due to environmental concerns. Our actions do have impacts! Rethink your relationship with plastic.
Switch your energy provider to renewable. As discussed, plastics are made from the chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. As we start to transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energies, demand for fossil fuels falls. This will reduce supply and therefore, reduce the availability of chemicals needed to make plastics. This will push more of the cost to produce plastics onto the producer and will likely reduce the supply, as they will no longer be able to flood the market with as cheap plastics.
Recycling is not the answer to our plastic crisis and we know only about 10% of plastics are recycled, but nevertheless it is important. Recycling is a step towards the creation of a more circular economy which helps decouple plastic production and fossil fuels, as it reduces the amount of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks that are used to make plastics. This reduces this important aspect of demand and subsequently will result in a decrease in supply.
It is also important to make sure the waste you produce ends up in the bin. If it is littered and ends up in the ocean not only does it affect the animals and the ecosystem, but we now are beginning to understand it can negatively impact the climate.
Centre for International Environmental Law, 2018. Untested Assumptions and Unanswered Questions in the Plastics Boom http://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Fueling-Plastics-Untested-Assumptions-and-Unanswered-Questions-in-the-Plastics-Boom.pdf
World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy — Rethinking the future of plastics (2016, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications).
Parley, 2018. A new link between plastic and climate change. http://www.parley.tv/updates/2018/7/23/a-new-link-between-plastic-and-climate-change
Centre for International Environmental Law, 2017. Fossils, Plastics, & Petrochemical Feedstocks https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Fueling-Plastics-Fossils-Plastics-Petrochemical-Feedstocks.pdf
Guardian, 2017. $180bn investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/26/180bn-investment-in-plastic-factories-feeds-global-packaging-binge
Friends of the Earth, 2018. Fracking Facts. https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate-change/fracking-facts
The new plastics economy rethinking the future of plastics, 2016. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/EllenMacArthurFoundation_TheNewPlasticsEconomy_15-3-16.pdf