In a press release published on May 15, 2019, non-governmental organization (NGO) Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) announced the launch of its new “report on the global environmental impact of the plastic industry,” prepared in collaboration with several other NGOs, including “Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, 5 Gyres, and Break Free From Plastic.”
The report reviews the greenhouse gas emissions occurring at each stage of plastics’ life cycle, from production to disposal. According to CIEL, it shows that “the rapid growth of the plastic industry . . . is not only destroying the environment and endangering human health but also undermining efforts to reduce carbon pollution and prevent climate catastrophe.” Further, “the climate impacts of plastics are poised to accelerate dramatically in the coming decade” if current activities continue unchanged. The study used “conservative assumptions to create a projection of plastic’s climate impacts under a business-as-usual scenario,” therefore “the actual climate impacts of plastics are likely to exceed these projections,” the authors warn.
With regard to plastic present in the environment, the report highlights “a small but growing body of research [that] suggests plastic discarded in the environment may be disrupting the ocean’s natural ability to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide.” A recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Communications Biology on May 14, 2019 has also found that “plastic pollution can have negative impacts on the ocean bacteria that produce 10 percent of Earth’s oxygen.”
CIEL concludes that “the most effective way” to reduce the climate impacts of plastics would be “to dramatically reduce the production of unnecessary plastics, beginning with national and global bans on nearly all single-use, disposable plastics.” Other actions that can be taken include “stopping development of new oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure; fostering the transition to zero-waste communities; implementing extended producer responsibility as a critical component of circular economies; and adopting and enforcing ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including plastics production.”
Industry association American Chemistry Council (ACC) commented that “the [CIEL] study falls short of comparing the carbon profiles of products and packaging made with plastics to those of alternatives, which tend to be much greater as documented in numerous life cycle studies.” For example, “a recent life cycle study of plastic packaging found that replacing plastics with alternatives would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions” (FPF reported). Further, “in addition to reducing the carbon impacts of transporting goods, plastic packaging helps to significantly reduce the emissions associated with food waste,” ACC stated. The latter argument, repeatedly brought up by the ACC (FPF reported), has been questioned by an NGO study published in April 2018, which found that “plastic food packaging is failing to reduce Europe’s growing food waste problem, and in some cases may even be fueling it” (FPF reported).
ACC further criticized that the CIEL report “focuses largely on the anticipated growth of plastic production but fails to note that production is growing in response to increasing global demand for lightweight automotive parts, building insulation, and product packaging—all of which play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping people live more sustainably around the world.” Various “strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics” have recently been discussed by Jiajia Zheng and Sangwon Suh from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, U.S. in their article published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change on April 15, 2019. Among other things, the authors highlighted the need for “demand-management strategies to curb growing life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from plastics.”
Plastic Pollution Coalition (May 15, 2019). “BREAKING: Report on global environmental impact of plastics reveals severe damage to climate.”
ACC (May 15, 2019). “Study misses the mark: Plastics help significant reduce carbon footprint.”
Brian Bienkowski (May 15, 2019). “From making to managing it, plastic is a major contributor to climate change.” Environmental Health News
John Abraham (February 16, 2017). “Scientists study ocean absorption of human carbon pollution.” The Guardian
Olivia Rosane (May 15, 2019). “Plastic pollution harms ocean bacteria that produce 10 percent of Earth’s oxygen.” EcoWatch
Madison Dapcevich (May 17, 2019). “Plastics Threaten Global Climate at a Massive Scale During Each Point of Lifecycle, Report Finds.” EcoWatch
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Science Daily (April 15, 2019). “Plastic’s carbon footprint.”
Hamilton et al. (May 2015). “Plastic & Climate: The hidden costs of a plastic planet.” (pdf)
CIEL (May 2015). “Plastic & Climate: The hidden costs of a plastic planet. Executive summary.” (pdf)
Villarubia-Gomez et al. (2018). “Marine plastic pollution as a planetary boundary threat – The drifting piece in the sustainability puzzle.” Marine Policy 96: 213-220.
Tetu, S.G., et al. (2019). “Plastic leachates impair growth and oxygen production in Prochlorococus, the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria.” Communications Biology
Jiajia Zheng and Sangwon Suh (2019). “Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics.” Nature Climate Change 9:374-378.