This is the second blog post by guest author and LWV UMRR Board member Kay Slama*. Kay's previous article was on climate change anxiety, and is found here. This article also appeared in the Jan 29 issue of the New London (MN) Lakes Area Review.
Plastics are pervasive in our lives. They pollute our waters, land, and oceans, and much microplastic is getting into our food and bodies. BUT DID YOU KNOW THAT PLASTICS ARE ALSO A MAJOR THREAT TO OUR CLIMATE?
Plastic production and use currently emit at least 232 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) every year, the equivalent of 116 average sized coal-fired power plants. At current rates, plastic emissions are predicted to double by 2050. According to Plastic and Climate, that’s a significant
proportion of the total remaining carbon budget, if we are to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C to avoid the worst of climate change. (See the footnote for sources of this information.)
GHGs are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle. First is fossil fuel extraction and transport. This includes methane leakage and flaring, energy consumption in the process of drilling for oil or gas and transporting it, and clearing land for wellpads and pipelines.
Second is plastic refining and manufacture. This puts plastics among the most GHG-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector—and the fastest growing. The manufacture of plastic is producing significant emissions through many steps in the chemical refining processes.
Third is the GHG from managing plastic waste. Plastic is primarily landfilled, recycled, or incinerated. Landfilling emits the least greenhouse gases on an absolute level, although it presents significant other problems. Recycling also produces moderate emissions, but at least it displaces new virgin plastic on the market. Incineration leads to very high emissions.
Last is plastic’s ongoing climate impact once it reaches our oceans, waterways, and landscape. Plastics in the ocean continually release methane and other GHGs. Plastics on our coastlines, riverbanks, and landscapes release GHG at an even higher rate. Microplastic in the oceans may also interfere with the ocean’s capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, and this is cause for serious concern.
Plastic production is subsidized by US government, just like oil production. The plastic industry’s misnamed Alliance to End Plastic Waste will do little to end plastic waste.
High-priority actions to reduce GHGs from the plastic lifecycle include:
“Plastic is the new coal,” said an author of New Coal. “We’ve got to reduce the use of plastic if we have any chance of hitting climate change goals.”
Footnote from Kay:
Much of the information in this column is from two reports. Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, published by the Center for International Environmental Law in 2019, and a newer 2021 report, New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change. Take a look at these reports—they are truly eye-opening!
*Kay Slama, from the Willmar MN chapter of LWV, grew up on a family farm in ND. She is a clinical psychologist who is retired from practice and from adjunct faculty positions with the UM Medical School Dept. of Psychiatry and St. Mary’s University’s doctoral counseling program. She is active with the Sierra Club and the Willmar Area Climate Action Group, and she serves as her church Social Justice Co-Chair. Kay’s most recent professional submission is “Women and the Existential Climate Crisis”, provisionally accepted by The Humanistic Psychologist. She says, “I volunteer for climate and other environmental issues because so much is at stake: Our water, land, soil, health, and the future of our children and the Earth.” She enjoys racket sports, biking, canoeing, reading, music, and gardening, and she spends several months each year in outdoor travel, birding, and photography.
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