Briefing: The Plastic Pollution Problem is a Climate Problem

Main points

  • More plastic is produced now than any other time in history. That’s 438 million tons of new plastic every year. 
  • Emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten our ability to meet global climate targets. 
  • Plastic waste and the plastics industry both contribute to climate change.
  • We cannot reverse the rising tide of plastics until we confront the ongoing petrochemical expansion.
  • People who work in or live near plastic producing and plastic waste disposal sites have increased health risks 
  • Policy efforts like the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act do not have the political will required to pass. Public awareness is lacking because plastic enjoys a positive image.

Climate Crisis

The plastics crisis is a climate crisis. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are emitted throughout the plastic life cycle and this threatens our ability to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C. Extraction, refining and manufacture of plastics are all carbon intensive activities. 

  • Plastics generated 3.4 percent of global emission - 1.8 billion metric tons of GHG in 2019, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. 
  • Roughly 90 of the plastic-related GHGs came from the production and conversion of fossil fuels. 
  • Emissions are set to increase as demand for plastic – found in everything from packaging to clothing – accelerates. 

Defeating Current Climate Goals 

The plastics industry is the fastest-growing source of industrial greenhouse gases in the world. The UN Environment Programme estimates that the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production, use and disposal could account for 15 percent of the total global carbon budget by 2050, making it hard to meet global targets without cutting emissions elsewhere.  

Emissions from petrochemicals have doubled in the past 25 years due largely to growth in demand for plastic and fertilizers, according to a report by Frederic Bauer of Lund University in 2022, and a new report by Bauer found that countries with large fossil fuel reserves are investing in the expansion of fossil-fuel based petrochemical production. While governments are committing to action on climate change and have signed up to initiatives tackling global plastic pollution, massive investments are being made to expand the production capacity of the petrochemical sector. Saudi Arabia, China and the United States, for example, have NOT signed the Global Plastics Treaty, which would create a legally binding agreement on plastic reduction goals. 

What does expanding production capacity for petrochemicals mean for oil and gas companies? For the oil and gas industry, the plastic production pipeline is its future business model in a world where energy is transitioning to renewable sources. This fact explains the oil and gas industry’s unrivaled investments in public relations and misinformation campaigns about recycling and the plastic reduction lifestyle.

Figure 1: Global plastic production since 1950. Source: P. Ryan, 2015.
Figure 2: Estimated annual emissions from the plastics lifecycle by 2050 (CIEL, 2019)Figure 2: Estimated annual emissions from the plastics lifecycle by 2050 (CIEL, 2019).

How are GHG emitted in the lifecyle of plastic?

  1. Extraction
    99 percent of plastics originate from fossil fuels like oil, gas or coal. Plastic production is therefore deeply linked with the fossil fuel supply chain. Many fossil fuel companies own, operate or invest in plastic production infrastructure.  The plastic industry accounts for about 6 percent of global oil consumption and is expected to reach 20 percent by 2050.

  2. Production of Virgin Plastic and Fertilizers
    Plastic is 99% fossil fuels. They are a particularly processed and refined form of fossil fuels, meaning that lots of energy has been used before we arrive at the shape and form that we know plastic products have. That’s why roughly 90 of the GHGs came from the production and conversion of fossil fuels into virgin plastic.

    Although cheaper to produce, virgin plastic production contributes indirectly to climate change because it requires energy to mine, extract, harvest, process and transport raw materials; more energy to manufacture, transport and dispose of waste products.

  3. Plastic waste is traded around the world on fossil-fueled ships.
    More research is needed on the GHG emissions from plastic waste shipment. What we do know is that it is large, because waste smuggling has been estimated to be the fourth most lucrative illegal business globally.

  4. Plastic waste heads to landfills, incinerators and nature 

Only between 9 to10 percent of plastic is recycled globally. About 79 percent of plastic waste ends up in landfills or nature and some 12 percent is incinerated. Each year, vast amounts of plastic waste is exported to low-income countries where it accumulates in landfills, pollutes water and air, degrades ecosystems and harms human health. 

a. Incineration Releases GHGs

Incineration of plastic waste releases significant GHG into the atmosphere, alongside toxic pollutants. Other disposal methods, including recycling, also come with their share of GHG emissions. In 2019, plastic production and incineration resulted in greenhouse gas emissions that equaled the emissions from 189 five hundred-megawatt coal power plants. 

b. Landfills emit GHG gases

The incineration of plastic waste produces carbon dioxide. A lifecycle analysis study found that 20 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions were released from the disposal of one ton of solid waste on land (Gregory, 2010).

Figure 3: The fundamental links between CO2 emissions and plastic pollution

c. Marine Litter may Accelerate Climate Change

A garbage truck equivalent of plastic waste is dumped in the ocean every minute. Plankton sequesters 30-50 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, but after it ingests microplastics, its ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere decreases. Plastic in the oceans may also interfere with the oceans’ capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide. 

  1. Health Impacts

Apart from climate impacts, plastic is bad for our health. It’s estimated that the average person could be injesting about five grams of plastic every week. A growing body of research points to the devastating health impacts along the entire plastic value change. The 2023 Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health reveals that:

    • Plastic production workers are at increased risk of leukemia, lymphoma, hepatic angiosarcoma, brain and or breast cancer, mesothelioma, neurotoxic injury and decreased fertility.
    • Plastic textiles workers die of bladder cancer, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and interstitial lung disease at increased rates. 
    • Plastic recycling workers have increased rates of cardiovascular disease, toxic metal poisoning, neuropathy, and lung cancer. 
    • “Fenceline” communities experience increased risks of premature birth, low birth weight, asthma, childhood leukemia, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.
    • Early-life exposure to plastic-associated chemicals increases the risk of developing multiple non-communicable diseases later in life. 
  1. Racial Justice 

Because the plastics crisis hurts people’s health, it is also a human rights crisis. While plastic pollutions hurts us all through microplastics, certain groups of people suffer additionally from other phases in the plastic lifecycle. Last year, the UN denounced environmental racism in the majority Black "Cancer Alley" region of Louisiana – an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River with more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries. In Houston, Texas, scientists using remote satellite imagery have shown that poor air quality from industry is unevenly distributed among low-income, non-white and Hispanic neighborhoods.

  1. Conclusion and Recommendation

The U.S. government fails to address the wide range of impacts along the entire plastic life cycle and downplays the role fossil fuel and petrochemical industries play in creating inequities. Countries must ban together to create legally binding rules that reduce plastic production (and therefore emissions) and must do so ambitiously while there is still a small window of opportunity to prevent irreversible climate disaster. So-called “solutions” perpetuated by the petrochemical industry dominate mainstream plastic narratives and confuse the public and policymakers. Strong regulations on the plastic waste trade, which has historically been done under the banner of plastic “recycling” are also needed to take undue burden off of Global South countries that are not responsible for the high levels of plastic consumption of the Global North.

At the same time, federal policy efforts like the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act do not have the political will required to pass. Public awareness is lacking because plastic enjoys a positive image and is dominated by fossil fuel industry greenwashing and lobbying.

People over Plastic believes that greater awareness about plastic’s impact on people and the planet will lead to greater accountability and drives community-driven, targeted, innovative circular economy approaches that will solve the plastics crisis. At the same time, behavior changing consumer campaigns can help to reduce the demand for single use plastic. 

Additional Reading

© People over Plastic 2024
© People over Plastic 2023