Plastic = Climate Change, Part 1

A Plastic Affair to Remember – Always.

Plastic first came into our lives 150 years ago, and we fell in love, hard. But although it made and makes our lives wonderful in many ways – it comes with baggage now. Lots and lots of terrible baggage.

This article, Part 1, outlines the impact plastic makes, including the heaviest baggage of all – plastic’s contribution to climate change.

How to adjust our relationship with plastic will be described in Part 2.

Our world of plastics

Let’s start off by noting that the term “plastic” is the common term for any long-chain molecule that can be shaped and reshaped by heat (think of the adverb “plastic”).  Celluloid, as in the film, was the first plastic made from natural materials, and was first made in 1863 to replace ivory as billiard-balls.  Yep, plastic began as a result of elephants being over-hunted and thus the need to replace the ivory in a barroom game; so at first, it helped take pressure off the environment. 

Photo by Tomaz Barcellos on Pexels.com

Forty plus years later came Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, made from mixing phenol and formaldehyde (REF).  Then, in the 1940s, the numbers of plastics began exploding.  Today we have thousands of types (REF), including:  nylon, Teflon®, Saran® (i.e., Saran Wrap®), polycarbonates (including the lovely sounding acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), polyester, PVCs, PETs, PDKs, Styrofoam®, polyethylenes, polypropylenes, polyurethanes, acrylics, epoxies, phenolics, melamine formaldehyde (aka Formica®), and silicone poly. (For more, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic#Types; https://science.howstuffworks.com/plastic4.htm).  Writing this, I just realized that when I paint with acrylic paint, I am painting with plastic. It makes so much sense now – I mean just looking at it, it looks like plastic.

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Obviously, we wanted this new creature in our lives. Today, plastic is ubiquitous (which is the first time I think I’ve ever written that word.)  We manufacture hundreds of millions of tons of plastic each year; in 2015, 35-45% of that was for packaging. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/08/the-world-of-plastics-in-numbers. Plastic is now “in-your-face.” It is promoted, sold, used, and discarded everywhere.

Plastics impact the environment, of course

We’ve woken to reality and have started a major campaign focusing on what is called single-use plastic.  What is really meant here, though, is single-use, “wasteful” plastic, in contrast to “needed” plastic. Some plastics are actually needed and make a huge difference in our lives. I am thinking of intravenous tubes, for instance, or of 3D-printed plastic braces to help people walk.  Plastic can be useful, even for the environment: rain barrels, and lighter cars and planes so that less energy is used. But whether multi-use plastic or very useful single-use plastic, most should be recycled (soon, if not yet).

Illustrative point: I was debating on what plastics I really depend, besides my computer, and then I realized that I need plastic. I had cataract surgery this year, in both eyes, and the new lenses in my eyes are plastic. I was beginning to have quite a lot of trouble reading and driving – and now I can see. I am lucky to live in this age. (Btw, I am way too young to have had cataracts!)

But do I/we need plastic microbeads in our face cleansers? Not.in.the.least. 🤦‍♀️ Single-use plastic drink bottles and plastic takeout containers? Nuh-uh.

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Styrofoam and its equivalents? Not now that we have mushroom packaging (https://matadornetwork.com/read/ikea-mushroom-packaging-decompose-weeks/). Plastic toys?  No: we are already eating a credit card’s worth of plastic a week through our drinking water (especially through bottled drinking water), via shellfish, etc., and by plastic chemicals leaching into our food via microwaving, so why get young, chewing infants started on this habit? 

We all know now, though, that we’ve gone too far with trying to convert everything to plastic, with our world having giant piles of plastic bags and bottles and coolers and toys on land, and waves in our oceans (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYBZK7sz25s; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFZS3Vh4lfI).

“Sufficient plastic is currently manufactured each year to weigh as much as all seven billion–plus humans on the planet.” (REF).

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I had mentioned big items above, but plastics degrade with sunlight and heat, although not biologically, as only one creature had evolved naturally to eat them (wait till Part 2!). With degradation, they only break down into smaller and smaller pieces, aka, microplastics, as well as emit gases (yes, you guessed it – GHGs, but more on that below). It’s through these microplastics that we drink and eat plastics now almost daily (REF), which is the excuse I would like to give about my weight gain – except plastics can be endocrine-disrupting and even toxic at certain levels, especially for children (https://www.businessinsider.com/endocrine-disruptors-dangerous-chemicals-2019-1; https://www.sciencealert.com/microbeads-are-causing-the-fish-we-eat-to-become-toxic-study-finds). It doesn’t help that additives are often mixed in, and these especially can be toxic. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic#Types). 

Life everywhere is encountering plastic and its residues – not just us, but also bacteria, plankton, fish, seabirds, marine mammals. Microplastics were first found in seabirds started in the 1960s (!; REF). Imagine how plastics and their toxins are working their way up the food chain today. No need to – it’s being documented (REF1, REF2).

The two plastics most notorious for being extra durable are polystyrene and PVCs (Polyvinyl chlorides) – breaking into smaller pieces but lasting for hundreds of years (REF1, REF2), although a number of microbes may evolve eventually to eat them.  However, if buried in oxygen-deprived environments, plastic may last perhaps thousands of years. 

Future geologists easily will be able to determine the boundary of the Anthropocene (which means the “human era”) due to a layer of minute plastic particles (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/humans-leave-a-telltale-residue-on-earth1/; Original Ref.). 

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Luckily, some – only some – people have seen the light about microbeads and a few Federal (U.S., Italy, U.K., New Zealand) and State governments (California, Illinois) have taken actions taken against them. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microbead-Free_Waters_Act_2015.  The mass release of balloons (mix of plasticized latex) has also been outlawed in several states.  But we still have a long road ahead.

So to sum, wasteful, single-use, throw-away plastic, is the second stupidest thing ever – second only to politicians ignoring scientists’ worries of climate change for over 50 years.  Thus, it is good to fight plastic waste, if only to keep from converting our own bodies and other animals’ bodies to plastic; to keep the majority of our land from becoming landfills; and to prevent our seas from turning into a floating synthetic wasteland.

But how do plastics intersect with climate change? 

Well now:

As of 2019, the full plastic life-cycle (creation through incineration) is annually equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.

Center for International Environmental Law’s (CIEL) Plastic and Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet Report, 2019. – https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Plastic-and-Climate-Executive-Summary-2019.pdf

The CIEL feels that this is likely an underestimate….

…And they don’t even factor in at least one impact noted below (#3.4 below).  So let’s count the bad ways that plastic intersects with climate change – and some good.

  1. First, plastic is a synthetic product almost always made from oil and gas (about 4% of fossil fuel supplies annually; in the US, mostly via fracking gas, which leaks methane, a very potent greenhouse gas (GHG).)
  2. Plastic is made almost entirely with energy from fossil fuels, and that process creates GHGs. 
    1. For example, just the transportation of the plastic resins to make water bottles, and then the molding of the water bottles, uses the equivalent of 17 million Barrels. Of. Oil. Per. Year. https://pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/02/bottled_water_factsheet.pdf.  (And this is when we already have it easy – most existing houses/offices in thedeveloped world have water pipes are laid, delivering water for free!)
    2. However, as the plastic industry states, making goods out of alternative materials often can cost more energy; but remember, we’re talking throw-away items in this article.  Throw-away items are never good – and they are generally made of plastic!  Nevermind that, as noted above, plastic can’t be biologically processed in nature and thus has a larger footprint.
  3. Plastic causes climate change after use:
    1. Landfills. Because plastic was previously carbon underground, landfill “sequestering’ results in few carbon emissions (CIEL, 2019), BUT, plastic leaches chemicals into waterways, so it has other toxic effects downstream and in our groundwater.
    2. Incineration. If plastic is incinerated, it increases carbon emissions to extremely high levels; in 2015 16 million metric tons of CO2e were released. Incineration yields “the primary driver of emissions from plastic waste management,” but this does not even account for the 32 percent of unmanaged plastic waste handling, such as through the open burning of plastic (CIEL, 2019.) [Side note: as a kid, I used to have fun standing over the burn barrel at my parents’ farm, watching the plastic melt. My parents recycle now, luckily.] The emissions from incineration are small (1/10th from what I can tell from the article?) compared to the emissions from production, but its still significant.
    3. Tossed into Ditches, Washed into Oceans. What happens to the plastic in the roadside ditch, blown by winds into pastures, and washed into waterways? 
      1. Wildlife species are (a) at their lowest numbers and highest risk ever since humans decided to take over the world. They are already beginning to be stressed by climate change, and will have to adapt or they will die. Plastic makes things that much more worse. We owe them. We rely on the remaining incredible, beautiful species, and they, now, rely on us for their future.
      2. Microplastics are ingested by plankton in the ocean.  Unfortunately, this is physically and chemically interfering with their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and convert it to energy and oxygen through photosynthesis.  Not only is it hampering this reaction, but it may start killing the plankton. In other words, “Microplastic in the oceans may also interfere with the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide.” (CIEL, 2019)
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4. EVEN WORSE (as if that’s possible):  As plastics break down, they also create GHGs.  Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Royer, at the University of Hawai’i, recently found that common plastics (such as polycarbonate, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene (LDPE)) create the GHGs methane and ethylene when exposed to sunlight.  AND with more degradation of a plastic, more pits form, allowing more of a plastic’s surface to be exposed to sunlight, and degradation then increases. We’ve seen it in those plastic lawn chairs — how they start off so easy to clean, but then become pitted over time. Although the impact plastic degradation has on carbon emissions relative to other sources is not yet known, methane is potent, as is ethylene. Dr. Royer is now tackling that question. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180801182009.htm. (Fyi, brought to you by a woman scientist.)

However, plastics can help the climate fight, in two very different ways.

  1. The development of more efficient plastics can create lighter materials and lighter packaging, and thus decrease the amount of energy required to move materials.  (https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Education-Resources/Publications/Impact-of-Plastics-Packaging.pdf). But for many products, i.e., the wasteful plastic, does it help enough to save on the environmental impacts it creates? No. The American Chemical Society/ACS (which has a pro-plastics council) talks a bit about the responsibility that the industry must take on, but they do not mention climate change. Is single-use, wasteful packaging worth its impact on climate change? No. So we need to fight this, make the ACS aware that we are extremely concerned about this, among other climate steps.
  2. In my experience as a community organizer, the need to fix the plastic problem helps people take their first steps towards environmental action, beyond recycling.
    1. Plastic has become such a major visible sign of the damage we have done to what we have typically thought of as pristine places – beaches, the ocean as a whole, Mt. Everest. It is also one of the first signs of how we can kill other species without hunting them or cutting down their habitat; seeing our plastic six-pack rings choking seals and seabirds is a horrid image.  It motivates.
    2. The action yields visible results.
    3. Third – picking up trash can often be very social events, which also help encourage people to take action.

Thus, even though picked-up trash can often wind up dumped right back in the ocean – it is a way to help fire up and start to engage people, as well as to make spaces more livable, for a while, at least. It will be better once we fix the recycling problem (i.e., countries overseas no longer want America’s trash to recycle; see Part 2).

Then, once engaged in this step, it is easier for people to take the next step – helping change our plastic and climate culture and infrastructure.

Next up, Part 2 – Steps to Fight Plastic’s Influence on the Climate Crisis.

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2 thoughts on “Plastic = Climate Change, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Climate Steps for the Extreme Beginner | Climate Steps

  2. Pingback: Glacial Pace: The Face of Change | Climate Steps

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