CLIMATE change and plastic waste are two of the big environmental problems we have today. In almost all the literature I read on print and the internet, these two problems are independent of each other and addressed separately. It is only recently that I stumbled upon a study that links these two global environmental issues.
The new study published in Science of the Total Environment brought together an interdisciplinary team of researchers from eight institutions in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom, including the Zoological Society of London and The University of Rhode Island. They reviewed the existing literature and determined that plastic pollution and the climate crisis interact to make each other worse.
The study authors concluded that the two problems are related in three key ways. First, plastics contribute to the climate crisis. Plastics are made from fossil fuels. They release greenhouse gases throughout their lifecycle from extraction to production, transportation and disposal.
A report by the group Beyond Plastics entitled “The New Coal: Plastics & Climate Change” says that plastic could have a larger carbon footprint than coal by the end of 2030. The report is a comprehensive account of the U.S. plastics industry’s contributions to the climate crisis. The burning of plastics made in the U.S. alone already releases an estimated 15 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, according to the report.
Second, the climate crisis spreads plastic pollution. Research has shown that plastics are already cycling through the water table and the atmosphere just like natural elements such as carbon or nitrogen. The impacts of climate change can further speed that cycling. Polar sea ice, for example, is a major sink for microplastics that will enter marine ecosystems when the ice melts.
Extreme weather events linked to climate change can also increase the number of plastics in the marine environment. After one typhoon in Sanggou Bay, China, for example, the number of microplastics found in both sediment and seawater rose by 40%. Another proof is the enormous volume of plastic waste that accumulates along the baywalk in Manila Bay after a typhoon.
Third, climate change and plastic pollution harm the marine environment. The paper especially focused on how both crises harm vulnerable marine animals and ecosystems. One example is sea turtles. Warmer temperatures are causing their eggs to skew more females than males, and microplastics may further increase the temperatures in nests. Marine animals get tangled in larger plastics or eat them by mistake. Global warming is also causing ocean acidification which harms coral reefs.
To tackle these environmental issues, the authors recommend a shift to a circular economy where a product does not end up as waste but instead is either reused or repurposed. What we have now is a linear economy that causes resource depletion on one end, and creates waste on the other. The authors are also recommending protecting “blue carbon” habitats like mangroves or seagrass, that can sequester both carbon dioxide and plastics.
November 04, 2021
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