Plastics Contribute to Greenhouse Gases
In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” a recent college graduate feels aimless, is seduced by his father’s business partner’s wife and, at a party, one of his father’s friends corners him:
“Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
“Benjamin: Yes, sir.
“Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
“Benjamin: Yes, I am.
“Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
“Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
“Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”
Will you think about it?
Global CO2 emissions from human activity have increased more than 400 percent since 1950. In light of a recent research paper released on April 15, it might be time to examine plastic as a culprit of global warming.
UC Santa Barbara researcher Sanwon Suh published “Strategies to Reduce the Global Carbon Footprint of Plastics” in (ITALICS) Nature Climate Change. The paper is apparently the first one to examine the extent to which plastic contributes to climate change.
In evaluating greenhouse gas emissions from plastics, Suh found the production and post-use, including recycling, emit a substantial amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“This is, to our best knowledge, the first global assessment of the life cycle of greenhouse gas emissions from all plastics,” said Suh, a professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, in a university newsletter. “It’s also the first evaluation of various strategies to reduce the emissions of plastics.”
The majority of plastic resins comes from petroleum—the plastic is formed into products and transported to the market, which also emits greenhouse gases.
The carbon footprint continues even after people have disposed of plastics through dumping, incinerating, recycling and composting—because all of those steps release carbon dioxide. Emissions from plastics in 2015 were equivalent to nearly 1.8-billion metric tons of CO2.
Plastic household items, water bottles and even synthetic clothing is a relatively new trend.
Prior to World War II, plastics were not commonly used in households. Grocery bags were introduced in America in 1979, and water bottles became popular in 1989 when PET (polyethylene terephthalate plastic) became the primary plastic.
Except for wine and beer, the food industry has now almost completely replaced glass bottles with plastic bottles.
Polyester clothing, which is made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a plastic derived from crude oil that’s used to make soda and ketchup bottles, was introduced in 1951 and had a constant growth until the 1970s, when a negative public opinion caused sales to drop.
In the 1980s, a group of designers including Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta help create a line of products made of polyester and polyester blends, which increased the “fabrics’” popularity. Now, most clothing has some synthetic fiber made from plastics.
More than 70 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year and synthetic garments are the biggest source of microplastic pollution in the oceans (up to 1900 fibers can be washed off one garment every time it is washed).
In 2015, carbon dioxide emissions from plastics were equivalent to nearly 1.8 billion metric tons, according to Suh’s study, which also examined the amount of carbon released in production and after it was used.
He says that number will increase if the demand for plastics grows as expected–22 percent over the next five years. This would make the emissions from plastics about 17 percent of the world’s total carbon budget by 2050.
A 2018 study, “Production of Methane and Ethylene from Plastic in the Environment,” published in PLOS ONE by researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, discovered that several greenhouse gases are emitted as common plastics degrade in the environment.
They found that two greenhouse gases–methane and ethylene–are released when plastics are exposed to sunlight.
Dr. Sarah-Jeanne Royer found that polyethylene, used in shopping bags, was one of the most prolific emitter of both gases.
The report stated: “Our results show that plastics represent a heretofore unrecognized source of climate-relevant trace gases that are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment.”
According to UC Santa Barbara industrial ecologist Roland Geyer, in 2018, 90.5 percent of plastic went un-recycled worldwide.
Given that the recycling bins on the streets in Pacific Palisades now go straight to trash, as do the bins at the Palisades Recreation Center, Circling the News asked the Mayor’s office about the success of blue-bin recycling.
The City currently contracts with 15 recycling facilities that process and sort content collected in blue bins. There are eight recycling facilities located in Los Angeles.
In 2018, roughly 17 truckloads of blue-bin material out of 706 were rejected, on average, per week. This meant about 70 out of 2,820 tons went to landfill, weekly.
Greenhouse gases are produced when making plastic bottles and clothing, and now there is proof that greenhouse gases are produced by plastics during recycling and those tossed in the ocean and in landfills.