The hidden costs of a plastic planet
Amanda Kistler, Director of Communications and Development at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), has shared a new report with CleanTechnica. The full report, Plastic & Climate The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet, was released on May 15, 2019. Below is a summary and several highlights from the report, and here is the full executive summary.
“Plastic pollution is not only trashing our oceans and hurting human health, but also accelerating climate change on a global scale. The new report by the Center for International Environmental Law and partners found that if the expansion of petrochemical and plastics production continues as currently planned, by 2050, plastic will be responsible for up to 13% of the total ‘carbon budget’ – the amount of CO2 we can emit globally and stay below 1.5°C of temperature rise.
“In the next 10 years alone, the report found that emissions from the plastics lifecycle could reach 1.34 gigatons per year – equivalent to the emissions from more than 295 500MW coal-fired power plants operating at full capacity.”
The new report updates us all on the urgency and the need for more willingness to change. There is a small list of simple changes anyone can do. It’s not that complex. The actions don’t need to be uncomfortable or inconvenient. For example, it is easy to avoid that salesperson handing you yet another plastic bag when you have your cloth one in hand. Carrying a stainless steel or glass container for water is also simple and easy.
The lead authors of this report are at CIEL, but it was a multifaceted report and contributions also came from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UCSD), GAIA, and others.
“In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants. At present rates, these greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to meet carbon emissions targets.
“Because plastic does not break down in the environment, it has continued to accumulate in waterways, agricultural soils, rivers, and the ocean for decades. Amidst this concern, there’s another largely hidden dimension of the plastic crisis: plastic’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”
“If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10–13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget. Nearly every piece of plastic begins as a fossil fuel, and greenhouse gases are emitted at each of each stage of the plastic lifecycle: 1) fossil fuel extraction and transport, 2) plastic refining and manufacture, 3) managing plastic waste, and 4) plastic’s ongoing impact once it reaches our oceans, waterways, and landscape. This report examines each of these stages of the plastic lifecycle to identify the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, sources of uncounted.”
In chapter 3 of the larger report, Calculating the Climate Costs of Plastic, the authors point to:
“The assumptions described here strongly indicate that the true impact of plastic on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is considerably greater than the numeric estimates this report suggests.”
The report is utterly comprehensive, including detailed information about the state of our union in an effort to sabotage our protective policies.
“Beyond fracking bans and other measures to limit production, one of the best ways to reduce emissions from the extraction and transport of natural gas products is to detect the sources of leaks and unnecessary releases. However, in September 2018, the Trump administration proposed weakening two rules that require companies to test for and repair methane leaks.”
“According to the self-reported data that oil and gas operators submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, 49,397,351 barrels (2.1 billion gallons) of liquid waste were produced from oil and gas wells in the state in 2015, along with 1,117,351 tons of solid waste.
“The Aliso Canyon accident was the largest natural gas leak in US history. While this release was unique in its scale, releases of this kind happen with alarming frequency across the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries.”
“The myriad industrial processes and pathways from which fossil fuels become plastic, and the number of stages of such production, make specific attribution of industrial emissions of greenhouse gases to plastic production extremely difficult.”
I will spare you the countless stomachs of birds filled with plastic (this time). Avoid buying and using plastic. Get active. Get a cloth shopping bag and a stainless steel thermos for yourself and your children. My grandchildren also use stainless steel straws, bamboo plates, cups. One can get glass straws as well. It is easy to do and makes you feel that much better about their future. Act.
If you can’t do zero-plastic-waste, don’t give up. Do what you can do. This is not a separate issue from what we breathe, what we ingest. An earlier CleanTechnica article quoted Dr. Nathan Hagens, Director of the Institute for the Study of Energy and Our Future, explaining how we are composed in this modern era:
“80% nitrogen in our bodies indirectly comes from the fossils slaves of this fossil sunlight that we are mining. So we are different than our ancestors. They were made of sunlight, we are made of fossil fuels.”
He labels for us the “fossil slaves,” noting that “fossils slaves poop and breathe, and their breath is causing our biosphere to warm up and our oceans to acidify.”
“Amidst growing concern about the impacts of plastic on the oceans, ecosystems, and human health, there’s another largely hidden dimension of the plastic crisis: plastic’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. This report examines each of these stages of the plastic lifecycle to identify the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, sources of uncounted emissions, and uncertainties that likely lead to underestimation of plastic’s climate impacts. The report compares greenhouse gas emissions estimates against global carbon budgets and emissions commitments, and it considers how current trends and projections will impact our ability to reach agreed emissions targets. It also compiles data, such as downstream emissions and future growth rates, that have not previously been accounted for in widely used climate models. This accounting paints a grim picture: plastic proliferation threatens our planet and the climate at a global scale.”
This one is critical for hope and for sustainability for your children and your grandchildren.
(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)