Plastics and Climate Change
Climate change has brought several individuals in developed and developing nations to speak the same language. Some have taken to social media to call for urgent climate action, while others are engaged in activities that sequester carbon from the atmosphere, for example, tree planting. Climate strikes and street marches have increased.
Can we address climate change from the root cause? Almost every sector of our economy contributes to climate change somehow. How does plastic production increase the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere?
While it might be overlooked, plastics directly contribute to increased emissions in the atmosphere resulting in a warming effect. Plastics come from fossil fuels. According to the Center for International Environmental Law, 99 percent of plastics come from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels.
Extraction and transportation of fossil fuels not only produce toxic emissions but cause land disturbances. The carbon buried in the soil escapes into the atmosphere in the process. Trees and forests that aid in carbon sequestration are cleared during fossil fuel extraction to allow smooth operations and create space for pipelines. This leaves a lot of carbon to accumulate in the air assisting in skyrocketing global atmospheric temperatures.
The manufacture of plastics in itself is energy-intensive. Throughout the process, starting with the extraction of fossil fuels through polymerization and plasticization to the refining stage, a lot of energy is used, most of which come from non-renewable sources.
Plastics are cheap and easy to access. A day cannot pass without interacting with plastics. Most of these plastics produced and consumed daily are single-use. It means more and more plastics will have to be manufactured to meet the needs of the growing population. That translates to tonnes of greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere, making it hard to meet the global target of keeping warming 1.5°C above the pre-industrial levels.
In Africa, for instance, plastic pollution is a looming crisis due to the ongoing manufacture of plastics. This is despite the fact that 34 countries across the continent have banned plastics in a way. Plastic production continues. The implementation of the bans remains a challenge.
The World Wide Fund for Nature recommends that strengthening of policy instruments is prudent in fixing the plastic menace through the integration of circular economy in the manufacturing sector.
Recycle, Reuse, Reduce
Recycling sounds like a go-to way of dealing with plastics; however, not all plastics can be recycled. The Center for International Environmental Law reports that recycling facilities often receive low-quality plastic products forcing them to use a lot of time and resources sorting the waste. The majority of the population is unaware of the kind of plastics to be recycled and the non-recyclable ones.
Reusing is a widely advocated way of dealing with plastics. However, not all plastics can be reused, while others can only be reused a few times. The quality of the item dictates the reusability. Nonetheless, reusing does not stop production.
A study assessing the lifecycle of supermarket carrier bags established that low-density plastics bags should be reused at least four times compared to a cotton bag that should be reused at least 131 times. A lightweight carrier bag with high-density polyethylene is not to be reused.
Ending the manufacture of single-use and disposable plastics is ideal for reducing greenhouse gases associated with plastics. This will be possible if viable national, regional and global plastic policies are developed and implemented effectively.
Promoting zero waste communities would significantly reduce the demand for plastics and change mindsets towards environmental conservation and climate action.
Wiping out plastics from the market value chain relies largely on producers and governments or legal frameworks. Thus, fostering extended producer responsibility in waste management will reduce the volumes of plastics as a circular economy will be integral. Countries like South Africa and Nigeria have effected their extended producer responsibility regulations while others, such as Kenya, are still at the validation stage
Climate change being a global problem, compelling every country to abandon plastic production and particularly single-use plastics will significantly reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hinging the world closer to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Caroline Kibii is an Environmental Researcher and a Policy Leader Fellow at the European University Institute.