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Climate Change & the Plastic Crisis

July 2023 by Saaniya Sharma

Photo by Linus Belanger on Unsplash

In recent years, plastic pollution has reached a point where its ubiquity is impossible to ignore. It has infiltrated our beaches and cities and the most isolated corners of our planet, entering the food chain and the human body.

However, the problem extends far beyond that. There exists another dimension of the plastic crisis that is often overlooked: plastic’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and its impact on climate change. Plastics are primarily derived from fossil fuels, particularly petroleum and natural gas, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each stage of their lifecycle. In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic produced more than 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases — equal to the emissions from 189 coal power plants. Under a business-as-usual scenario, these emissions will rise to 2.8 billion metric tonnes by 2050.

A worsening plastic crisis not only poses a threat on its own, but also exacerbates the climate crisis. Plastic-Free July, an initiative to create awareness around and reduce plastic waste, serves as a reminder that the plastic problem requires a more comprehensive approach by businesses. As major contributors to plastic consumption and waste, big corporations play a pivotal role in addressing the plastic crisis.

Fossil fuels dependency

Almost all plastic comes from fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal are the fossil-fuel building blocks of plastic. Additionally, the production of plastic requires significant energy input, which is also derived from fossil fuels. From the extraction of raw material, to the refining and processing of plastic, fossil fuels are utilised throughout its supply chain. Currently, about 4-8% of the annual global oil consumption is associated with plastics. By 2050, plastics will account for 20% of oil consumption if this reliance persists.

When plastics are not properly disposed of or recycled, they often end up in landfills or are incinerated. Part of the reason the carbon footprint of plastic is so high is that a significant amount of plastic waste is burned. As plastic is derived from fossil fuels, the carbon stored within these fuels is released when plastics are burned, further contributing to the emissions. In addition to the climate impact, incineration sites are often located near marginalised communities, exacerbating environmental injustice.

A circular plastics economy

The circular economy is a closed-loop framework that tackles climate change, pollution and other environmental issues by eliminating waste, facilitating the circulation of products and materials, thereby extending their lifecycle. These include the quintessential ‘3Rs’: reuse, reduce and recycle.

The illusion of recycling

At the consumer level, recycling is often hailed as the ultimate solution to our plastic problem. However, the reality is slightly different. Over 90% of plastics produced since 1950 have not been recycled. Part of the reason is that most plastics are difficult to recycle due to mixed materials, lack of infrastructure or, at times, contamination. Additionally, every time plastic is recycled, its quality degrades, thus eliminating its capacity to be made into anything useful. Research suggests that only 2% of plastics are recycled into products with the same function, and around 8% are down-cycled to a lower quality.

Therefore, to move into a circular plastics economy, we cannot rely on recycling alone. Embracing other principles, such as reducing and reusing, are equally vital. Encouraging a shift in business practices, promoting alternatives to single-use plastics, and supporting innovative solutions are crucial.

Corporate accountability and greenwashing

When it comes to companies’ sustainability commitments, waste reduction strategies, such as advancing recycling efforts and increasing recycled or recyclable content in packaging, are very common. One commonly employed tactic is ‘lightweighting,’ where companies slightly reduce the volume of plastic in their packaging, such as by making thinner PET bottles. While this is a small step in the right direction, it has also become one of the most prevalent examples of greenwashing, misleading consumers into believing their products or packaging are greener than they truly are.

In reality, these measures only divert attention from the core issue: the use of virgin plastic itself. To make a significant impact, the focus should be on curbing plastic production, but research indicates that less than 3% of the largest corporations explicitly target virgin plastics in their initiatives. For instance, Unilever has pledged to halve the virgin plastic content in their packaging by 2025.

Considering the significant influence large corporations wield in the plastic industry, they must be held accountable for their environmental impact. While an increasing number of companies are committing to reducing plastic waste and boosting recycling, it is crucial to scrutinise their efforts. Transparency, sustainable practices, and responsible waste management should be fundamental principles for companies aiming to drive meaningful change.

The solution?

Reducing emissions in every phase of the plastics life cycle is essential. However, to truly slow the growth of plastics production, systemic changes are also necessary. When seeking solutions, careful consideration of alternative materials to replace plastics is crucial.

To effectively cut emissions related to plastics, a range of strategies must be employed. These include reducing plastic usage in products and packaging, exploring alternative materials, implementing stricter regulations and extended product responsibility, and supporting closed-loop systems. The recent regulations in the UK and EU to ban single-use plastic and a range of other guidance on plastics are an example of facilitating this change.

The plastic problem requires a holistic approach that surpasses the realms of recycling and reusing. Businesses, particularly big corporations, must scrutinise greenwashing practices, invest in innovative solutions, and commit to reducing fossil fuel reliance. By collectively advocating for change, supporting sustainable alternatives, and demanding corporate accountability, we have a better chance at paving the way towards a plastic-free future.

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