Is Plastic Pollution Causing Climate Change?

2 comments by Liv McLeod
Is Plastic Pollution Causing Climate Change?

We all know plastic's bad for the environment. It's a no-brainer.

The interaction between plastic pollution and the ecosystem (think wildlife eating plastic, getting tangled, or microplastics entering the food chain) mean it's a serious danger for our flora and fauna. Plastic is basically the kryptonite of the entire natural world.

But did you know that it's also a contributor to climate change? The production of plastic actually creates greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its life cycle: extraction, refining, consumption, and waste management.

Plastic extraction and refining

Plastic extraction sounds like an 80s pop punk girl band, but instead what it does is contribute to an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

This is because plastics actually begin as fossil fuels, and the main ingredient of plastic feedstock is oil. Talk about a villain origin story. In fact, refining plastic is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive industries.

Plastic doesn't exist without fossil fuels. So if we're scaling up plastic production, we're also scaling up the amount of fossil fuels we use. Meaning that before plastic even hits the shelves, it's already done the planet a dirty.

Consumption and end of life 

Then, once the plastic exists, there's no way to get rid of it without creating even more greenhouse gases. Chucking the plastic in landfill or incinerating it releases pollutants like methane into the air.

In many developing countries, plastic waste is dealt with by burning it all on an open fire. The problem with this is that open burning creates a gas called 'black carbon', a type of boss pollutant that's responsible for visible smog. Black carbon has been shown to have 5,000 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

But recycling fixes everything, right? Now that there are soft plastic recycling bins at Coles and Woolies, it's easy to be tricked into thinking that we can pop our plastics in there and they'll be dealt with properly.

While recycling is handy for replacing new plastics on the market, it still releases emissions. And besides, only around 9% of plastic is recycled per year. 

Anything that doesn't meet these endings is dumped into, you guessed it, the natural environment.

The Ocean Problem

If plastic isn't disposed of properly, it emits greenhouse gases as soon as it's hit by a little bit of solar radiation (you know, the stuff the sun puts out).

So when plastic is washed into the ocean, it breaks down into microplastics, and then the sun causes it to release methane and ethylene into the water.

This is a really scary loop, because the more radiation the plastic gets, the more greenhouse gases are emitted, so the more the planet heats up, meaning the next load of plastic that's dumped in our seas gets even more sun.

Plankton is usually really good at hiding away up to 50% of carbon dioxide emissions, but it loses a lot of that ability after ingesting microplastics.

The worst part is that all the statistics about what actually happens to waste once it's in our oceans only account for the 1% on the ocean's surface. The 99% that lies below the ocean's surface can't even be estimated yet.

What can we do?

While the world is still catching up on minimising plastic production, using organic materials, or making industrial composting as mainstream as recycling, you really only have one option:

... Stop using so much plastic! Supply equals demand, and making efforts to engage in movements such as Plastic Free July, using reusable food and drink containers, and preparing your meals ahead of time makes a huge difference.

On the grander scale, many experts have suggested moving towards sustainable consumption and production overall. This kind of change is only possible if governing bodies, consumers, and businesses work together. 

In an ideal world, we'd be operating under a circular economy style of production, where all plastic is reusable, recyclable or compostable.

But we're not there yet, and until that infrastructural change takes place, all small contributions help.

We all love our planet, but with a changing climate we can expect to see rising sea levels, flooding and erosion, increased heat, drought, and insect outbreaks (yuck). So climate change is something we need to be mitigating in all areas of life, all the time.

Any way of reducing plastic production and use is a step forward, so if you're engaging with any plastic alternatives like our Ecomailers, you're already doing right by the environment.

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. 
- Howard Zin 


  • Liv

    Thanks Linda for bringing this to our attention – that’s a terrible waste and great to have more info about floral foam!

  • Linda Shannon

    One single use plastic that I feel is severely overlooked in the ‘single use plastics’ conversation is floral foam.
    The amount of cellophane and other plastics used in the floristry profession is enormous. Flowers are wrapped in these plastics at point of harvest for protection during transportation.
    The florist then shove them into floral foam (which is usually wrapped in more cellophane) for retail.
    There are alternate ways to hold and support flowers into a vessel without using this single use plastic – which crumbles into microscopic particles into our waterways!

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