Break It Down: How Plastic Production Impacts Climate Change [Non-Fiction 1st Place]
Emma Simon - 1st place Non-Fiction
UCLA - Environmental Science major
BREAK IT DOWN: HOW PLASTIC PRODUCTION IMPACTS CLIMATE CHANGE
Since its first synthesis in the early 1900s, it’s taken plastic less than 100 years to make its way into our food, our clothes, our phone cases, our furniture, and our environment. Each year, the U.S. produces more plastic pollution than any other country. A large portion of this waste makes its way to the coast and eventually into our oceans. The infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, larger than the state of Texas and composed of 99.99% plastic waste, is just one of many “trash islands” in the ocean. And while the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may be remote, plastic pollution is not.
A recently published report by 5Gyres (named for the five major ocean gyres, which also collect and concentrate oceanic plastic pollution) found that the quantity of plastic in the ocean has surged in recent decades, and could triple by 2040 without global action. Though previous estimates of marine plastic concentrations have been consistently low, microplastic concentrations are now increasing at exponential rates. The bottom line of the 5Gyres report is that no matter how we manage our waste, pollution will skyrocket unless plastic production is controlled. Plastic production is the fastest-growing source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and is an insidious threat to ecosystems across the world. In addition to the devastating impacts plastic pollution has on the environment, plastic production is fueling the global climate crisis.
Plastics are synthetic compounds made of fossil fuels such as crude oil, fracked natural gas, or coal. Right now, plastic production accounts for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but under a business-as-usual (BAU) timeline, it will account for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Plastic was first introduced to the world seventy years ago in the form of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and is now so ubiquitous that it can be difficult to imagine a world without it. Currently, 60 – 80% of all litter is composed of some form of plastic.
Plastics are formed from tiny pellets that are then mass-distributed to be melted down and turned into whole products. Once plastic waste reaches its final destination, it does not decompose. In the ocean, macroplastics break down back into microplastics— plastics less than 5 mm in diameter—, making them nearly impossible to eliminate. Primary microplastics plastics, like glitter, are considered microplastics from the start and are practically destined to become environmental waste. When plastics are broken down into microplastics, they release even more greenhouse gasses. Single-use plastics, such as straws, plastic bags, or takeout containers, contribute to global plastic waste, as do plastics used in commercial fishing.
WHAT ABOUT RECYCLING?
There are seven grades of plastic. Five of these plastic grades, including the lightweight flexible plastic used in many food wrappers, are essentially unrecyclable, despite what manufacturers may claim.
And unfortunately, recycling is inefficient at best. Only about 10% of plastic waste is recycled in the U.S., and tossing something into the recycling bin doesn’t guarantee its fate. Most “recycled” plastics are never effectively upcycled; they end up right back in landfill.
THE OTHER 90%
The 90% of non-recycled plastic waste ends up either incinerated, in the landfill, or in the environment – the latter becoming a forever home for 30% of all plastic waste. When plastic makes its way from land into the ocean, it threatens the lives of all marine organisms. Many sea animals confuse microplastics for food and eat it. These microplastics give many animals a false sense of satiated hunger, but without any real nutrition, they eventually starve to death. Those that don’t starve to death are eaten and the plastic makes its way up the food chain, ultimately ending up on our plates.Unsurprisingly, ingestion and inhalation of microplastics lead to a myriad of health problems, and yet, most human adults have at least 500 microplastics in their gut.
Additionally, oceanic microplastics reduce some natural carbon sequestration. When primary producers like plankton and microalgae ingest microplastics in the marine water column, their ability to photosynthesize and sequester carbon is impacted.
SOME GOOD NEWS
The good news is, despite the best efforts of industry leaders, public opinion is overwhelmingly against plastic production. A global survey taken in November 2022 found that nearly 80% of participants were in favor of banning plastics that cannot easily be recycled. A majority of California citizens consider plastic pollution and ocean conservation to be significant issues. And California lawmakers are listening. In 2022, Senate Bill 54 (SB 54) was passed almost unanimously through the state congress.
Senate Bill 54 requires that companies reduce single-use plastic packaging and foodware production by 25% and requires all single-use plastic packaging and foodware to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. This bill makes California the first state to pass a law targeting plastic reduction— the strongest anti-plastic law in the nation. Additionally, the measure requires plastic producers to fund $5 billion towards plastic pollution mitigation. While SB 54 serves as a model for more comprehensive bills to come across the country, it isn’t enough.
The U.S. has fallen behind many other Western countries in terms of laws mitigating plastic pollution. State and federal legislatures are often successfully blocked by wealthy industry giants. To support a future free of plastic pollution, do your part to support and advocate for initiatives that restrict unnecessary plastic production.
Ultimately, plastic production is driven by supply, not demand. Corporations push the excess products on developing communities unprepared to deal with the impacts of plastic. This is called waste colonization. Low-income, rural neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by plastic production and pollution.
Waste colonization is a global threat. The U.S. is responsible for sending its contaminated waste to other countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam, avoiding their own responsibility to dispose of plastic. Plastic pollution is not an “out of sight, out of mind” matter— we must ensure that when advocating for environmental stewardship, we are advocating for environmental stewardship everywhere.