We’re all too aware of the consequences of plastics in the oceans and on land. However, beyond the visible pollution of our once pristine habitats, plastics are having a grave impact on the climate too.
Newly published research calculates that across their lifecycle, plastics account for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s almost double the emissions of the aviation sector. If it were a country, the “Plastic Kingdom” would be the fifth-highest emitter in the world.
Demand is set to rise, too. At 380m tonnes a year, we produce 190 times more plastic than we did in 1950. If the demand for plastic continues to grow at its current rate of 4% a year, emissions from plastic production will reach 15% of global emissions by 2050.
More than 99% of plastics are manufactured from petrochemicals, most commonly from petroleum and natural gas. These raw materials are refined to form ethylene, propylene, butene, and other basic plastic building blocks, before being transported to manufacturers.
The production and transport of these resins requires an awful lot of energy – and therefore fuel. Greenhouse gas emissions also occur during the refining process itself – the “cracking” of larger hydrocarbons from petrochemicals into smaller ones suitable for making plastic releases carbon dioxide and methane. According to the study, about 61% of total plastic greenhouse gas emissions comes from the resin production and transport stage.
A further 30% is emitted at the product manufacturing stage. The vast majority of these emissions come from the energy required to power the plants that turn raw plastic materials into the bottles, bin bags and bicycle helmets we use today. The remainder occurs as a result of chemical and manufacturing processes – for example, the production of plastic foams uses HFCs, particularly potent greenhouse gases.
The remaining carbon footprint occurs when plastics are thrown away. Incineration releases all of the stored carbon in the plastic into the atmosphere, as well as air pollutants such as dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, which are toxic and damaging to human health.
As plastics take centuries to degrade, disposal in landfill makes only a small contribution to emissions in theory. However, as much as 40% of landfill waste is burnt in open skies, dramatically speeding up the release of otherwise locked-up carbon.
If we are to combat climate breakdown, reductions in plastic emissions are clearly needed. Thankfully, the solution with the biggest potential is already in motion, albeit snow. In showing that transitioning to a zero carbon energy system has the potential to reduce emissions from plastic by 51%, the study provides yet another reason to rapidly phase out fossil fuels.
However, beyond urgently required global decarbonisation, we need to reduce our seemingly insatiable demand for carbon-based plastic. Increasing recycling rates is one simple way of doing this. The highest-quality plastics can be recycled many times, and nearly all plastic can be recycled to some extent – but only 18% was actually recycled worldwide in 2015. Although each recycle process requires a small amount of new plastics, we can greatly increase the life cycle of the material by efficiently reusing what we make.
A more fundamental solution is to switch to making plastics from biodegradable sources such as wood, corn starch, and sugar cane. The materials themselves are carbon neutral, although renewable power is essential to eliminate the climate impact of energy costs during production, transport and waste processing.
However, a massive ramping up in the production of bioplastics – which currently make up less than 1% of total plastic production – would require vast swathes of agricultural land. With the population set to arise dramatically, increasingly coveted arable space may not be able to satisfy demand.
Since the year 2000, we’ve used more plastic than in all the years before.
On average, we each use 53 kilograms of plastic a year and generate a collective total of more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste.
By 2030, this is predicted to double, with the brunt of the impacts expected to hit our ocean.
These are just some of the figures to come from WWF’s global plastic report, solving plastics through accountability, released today.
The report urges policy makers to draft a global, legally binding agreement to stop plastic entering marine environments, and to establish strong national targets to cut down on plastic use.
About 40 per cent of plastics we consume today are single-use — things like cutlery, plates, food containers, electronics packaging.
Single-use plastics simply have to go, according to Richard Leck, WWF’s Head of Oceans and Sustainable Development.
“In terms of the calls to action, absolutely the ban around single-use plastics is very important,” he said.
“There needs to be incentives for producers to use products that aren’t single use.”
And WWF isn’t alone.
This week, Hobart City Council voted 8-4 in favour of phasing out single of plastics by 2020, and a Senate inquiry last year recommended a national ban to be implemented over the next five years.
In what he described at the time as a “rare display of political consensus”, Greens Senator and inquiry chairman Peter Whish-Wilson said the Senate had “laid down a clear pathway for Australia to create a circular economy and stop piles of plastic, paper and glass being stockpiled or heading to landfill”.
But what would that actually look like?
Single-use plastics have become so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine doing things any other way.
Somewhere along the line we’ve constructed a system in which it makes more sense to mine the oil to make the plastic cutlery to use once and throw away, than it does to put our steel cutlery in a dishwasher.
The way forward is to transition to a circular economy, where everything is made to be reused, according to Candice Quartermain, founder and CEO of Circular Economy Australia.
“The fact that we’re seeing stats coming out now saying there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2025 is insane,” she said.
“Circular economy is changing the economy entirely as we know it. It’s really about saying we can’t carry on the way that we are, something has to change, and the focus needs to be on quality and finding more effective ways of doing things.”
In creating plastic we’ve effectively designed a material that is too good. It’s cheap, versatile and lasts a long time.
To help shift us towards a circular economy, single-use plastic needs to be more expensive to produce, according to Mr Leck.
For that to happen, producers need to be accountable for the entire lifecycle of their products.
For instance, a soft-drink bottle floating in the ocean must be the property of the company that made the bottle, and they must have factored in the cost of retrieving the bottle into their business model.
“The issue around plastic is the classic example of ‘who pays?’ At the moment, the polluters aren’t paying,” he said.
“We have to make sure that the cost of plastics to nature is incorporated into the price.”
While plastic is cheap for manufactures to produce, the UN Environment Program estimates ocean plastic pollution costs around $US8 billion each year through impacts on things like fisheries, tourism and maritime operators.
But if manufacturers cleaning up their waste sounds far-fetched, it’s already happening in parts of Europe, according to waste management expert Helen Millicer.
She’s been touring Europe on a Churchill Fellowship, and said parts of Europe are already making huge strides toward achieving a circular economy.
“Companies that don’t design or enable products to be reused or recycled, are penalised,” she said.
The European Commission is now phasing out plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws and drink stirrers in all member states. Single-use plastic bottles with detachable lids are also being banned.
A European Commission statement has outlined a shift in responsibility from consumers and onto producers for the entire lifespan of their products, from their production right through to disposal.
“Producers will help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness-raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers, drinks containers and cups, tobacco products with filters, wet wipes, balloons, and lightweight plastic bags,” an EU Commission statement said.
“The industry will also be given incentives to develop less-polluting alternatives for these products.”
For its part the Australian Senate report included a stipulation that the Federal Government have mandatory targets for the inclusion of recycled materials in its procurement process.
Recycling industry leaders have previously criticised states and the Federal Government for using virgin materials in projects like road and infrastructure building, while recycled stockpiles have been growing higher.
And Senator Whish-Wilson called for more incentives for businesses to use recycled products, after last year’s inquiry.
“Without incentivising domestic markets for the end-use of these waste streams it will keep piling up at rubbish tips around the country,” he said.
Incentives are needed to balance the market.
According to WWF, the cost to recycle plastic in Europe is almost double what that plastic is then worth.
While market-based mechanisms will be the most effective method for driving change, some US based artists have been taking a more conceptual approach to the issue.
The size of the installations are equal to the average amount of plastic cups, bottles and straws that each American uses in a year.
Feeling frustrated by the lack of action by her own government, Ms Cruder said she wanted to make something “so freaking big” they couldn’t ignore it.
“We’re not blaming anyone,” Ms Cruder said.
“We’re asking people to pay attention to their behaviours and examine them, [but] I think most people don’t know where to start.”
While reimagining a world without single-use plastics might be hard, doubling the world’s plastic pollution by 2030 will be worse, according to Mr Leck.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean contains about 78,000 tonnes of plastics, according to the latest estimates.
It’s one of five massive ocean greys rapidly accumulating plastic waste.
“We use the analogy that, imagine if there was about 8 million tonnes of oil being pumped into the oceans each year, there would be a massive public outcry,” Mr Leck said.
“If the global plastics system is left to function as it does currently then the plastic pollution crisis risks spiralling out of control.”