Plastic waste not only threatens our environment and the animals that inhabit it; there are invisible effects of plastic pollution on the climate too. New scientific studies have shown that plastic is responsible for almost 4% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions – that’s twice as much carbon emissions than the aviation industry produces.
Plastic is, therefore, a major contributor to global warming. The world produces around 380 million tonnes of new plastic every year. At this current rate, the global percentage of emissions from plastic production will hit 15% by 2050. So, how does plastic drive carbon emissions and global warming?
Plastic manufacturing contributes to global warming
Almost all plastic products are manufactured from oil-based substances such as petroleum and natural gas. These non-renewable raw materials are refined and processed into basic building blocks such as ethylene and propylene, before being shipped to plastic manufacturers.
The production and transport of these oil-based building blocks require huge amounts of fuel and energy. Carbon dioxide and methane are emitted during the refining process and the transportation of the plastic resins. The manufacturing and transportation phases of plastic resin account for 61% of the total plastic greenhouse gas emissions.
Another 30% of emissions are released when these plastic resins are turned into usable plastic products. The process of manufacturing plastic bottles, bags and many other products requires a large amount of energy. Some plastic products, such as styrofoam containers, also result in other harmful gaseous byproducts.
Discarded plastic continues to contribute to greenhouse gas emissions
Once these plastic products are purchased and used, they are often discarded. The remaining 9% of carbon emissions from plastic products come from the waste management processes required. Those plastic products that cannot be recycled are often sent to landfills or are incinerated.
Burning plastic releases all of the stored carbon in the product into the atmosphere. Other greenhouse gases are also released when plastic waste is incinerated. Sending plastic to landfills is a better alternative to incineration, but these products can take centuries to decompose, which means that landfills can fill up quickly and stay full.
How to tackle plastic greenhouse gas emissions
There are many problems associated with the manufacturing of plastic products which are compounded by the sheer scale of production. However, there are a few ways in which we can reduce the effects of greenhouse gas emissions that arise from plastic production.
Plastic alternatives such as biodegradable and compostable materials are slowly becoming more popular. Although they are more expensive to purchase, these natural materials are also kinder to the environment during their manufacturing phases. By opting for alternatives to carbon-based plastic, such as sugarcane or corn starch, we can reduce our global greenhouse gas output.
Another solution is to increase recycling rates and invest in new methods of recycling that can process a wider range of plastic products with less environmental impact. Plastic can only be recycled a set number of times before it becomes too weak and brittle. By finding new ways to extend the life cycle of plastic, we will be able to keep existing plastic in circulation for longer and reduce the amount of new plastic that needs to be manufactured.
However, the most effective solution comes in the form of refusal to use plastic. This option requires a total lifestyle shift and mindset adjustment, but have already proved that it is possible. Many citizens in South Africa and around the world are already living plastic-free lives. Plastic also didn’t exist until the mid-1900s, so it is possible to survive without the material.
By minimising the demand for plastic, its production will be reduced. If society can change its attitude towards plastic and take steps to address pollution, the plastic manufacturing industry will adapt and respond accordingly. Not only will this eradicate plastic pollution, but it will also minimise carbon emissions and slow down the rate of global warming.
Averda is a leading waste management provider with over 50 years of experience across three continents. Through growth, transformation and engagement, we strive to find new ways of managing waste while protecting the community and environment.
By pairing international expertise with local insights, we have secured our position as one of South Africa’s most respected providers of waste management and industrial cleaning services. We also operate in the recycling, pipe inspection, CCTV, infrastructure inspection, hydro-demolition, high-pressure water jetting and catalyst handling industries.
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