The global plastic crisis is swiftly escalating, demanding immediate action to address its dire consequences. It vividly illustrates how the triple planetary crisis - pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change - are interconnected facets of an urgent challenge. Throughout its lifecycle, plastic pollution inflicts diverse and far-reaching impacts on ecosystems and communities worldwide. While global efforts pivot towards transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy and transportation to combat climate change, the critical significance of addressing plastics remains undeniable due to their direct ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Did you know? As much as 99% of plastics are derived from fossil fuel feedstocks, tightly intertwining plastic production with the fossil fuel sector. Petrochemicals are projected to be the primary driver of global oil demand growth from now until 2030. By 2025, the amount of plastic produced annually is projected to exceed 2015 levels by 40%, with more than 40% of that plastic for disposable packaging (CIEL, 2019).
Impact of Plastics on Climate Change
The alarming carbon footprint of plastics poses a direct threat to the urgent goal of limiting global temperature rise below 1.5°C. As the global plastic industry which is mainly driven by natural gas continues to grow rapidly, it undermines our efforts to decrease carbon emissions and forestall an impending global climate catastrophe. Despite initiatives in waste management like ocean cleanups, downcycling or plastic-to-fuel conversions, these efforts fail to reduce reliance on fossil fuels or curb greenhouse gas emissions. Alternative approaches involving biological or chemical processes to break down and reconstruct plastics, while costly, struggle to be feasible on a large scale, impeding progress in addressing the extensive plastic crisis.
Did you know? Every minute, the equivalent of 1 garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the ocean. By 2040, up to 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions will stem from plastics (Secretary-General António Guterres, 2023).
Impacts of Plastics on People and the Environment
Plastics exert a detrimental impact on both the environment and human health across their entire life cycle, causing negative consequences at every phase. Their persistent and toxic nature poses a severe threat to biodiversity, endangering ecosystems, plant species, and animals, hindering their vital roles for humanity. Disposal methods exacerbate the issue as incineration releases toxic substances and micro- and nano-plastics into the air. Landfills contaminate soil and water, affecting biodiversity at local and global levels. Chemical additives significantly contribute to plastic pollution, extending beyond visible plastic particles, posing risks to both humans and the environment.
The environmental toll of plastic pollution is staggering. It casts a shadow over a vast majority of seabird species (99%) and marine mammals (52%), with a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals succumbing to plastic-related causes each year. Specific ecosystems, particularly oceanic and mountainous regions, face heightened vulnerability due to the combined effects of climate change and plastic pollution. Plastics disrupt the ocean's ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide, aggravating climate change. Leakage of plastics into the ocean further harms marine life, impacting freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. The environmental harm starts at the initial phase of its live cycle during fossil fuel extraction and plastic production, releasing harmful substances into the air and contaminating local environments.
The health consequences are equally concerning, with microplastics found in the human bloodstream, lungs, and placentas, raising potential health risks from both microplastics and plastic additives. According to a new study by the WWF, an average person could be ingesting approximately 5 grams of plastic every week, and research reveals that microplastics act as vessels for pathogens to enter our system, increasing the spread of disease. This is not just an environmental crisis; it's a human health crisis as well. Sadly, despite discussions around recycling as a solution, a mere 14% of plastic waste is currently collected for recycling, exacerbating the problem of plastic pollution.
Biodegradable and 100% Recyclable PET Plastic
While biodegradable plastics are often suggested as an environmentally friendly solution, they cannot replace fossil plastics without causing their own set of harms and emissions from land, water, and energy use. Additionally, they fail to address emissions from manufacturing and incineration. The potential of biodegradable plastics to address the crisis in the long term remains limited. Estimates show that almost 80% of all plastic ever produced has ended up either in landfills or in the natural environment (Geyer, Jambeck & Lavender Law, 2017).
Even though recycled plastics are perceived as a solution, they come with inherent issues that counteract circularity. These recycled materials, aimed at mitigating the plastic crisis, exhibit higher toxicity levels than single-use plastics. Furthermore, the recycling process inadvertently disperses microplastic pollution, exacerbating environmental contamination. With each recycling cycle, the toxicity of plastics intensifies, accumulating elevated levels of chemicals like benzene, a known carcinogen, and other harmful substances like endocrine disruptors. The quality of recycled plastic diminishes over successive cycles as the polymer chain shortens, limiting its reusability to only 2-3 cycles. These inherent challenges underscore the incompatibility of plastics within a circular economy framework and highlight their environmental impact and health risks.
Achieving a Green Economy without Plastics
To transition towards a green economy free from plastics, embracing the concept of a 'circular economy' is crucial. This holistic approach surpasses simply substituting plastics; it necessitates limiting plastic production, making the recycle-reuse framework not just an option but an essential requirement.
- Establishing a toxin-free and human rights-centric circular economy.
- Advocating sustainable production practices by adopting eco-friendly materials.
- Promoting sustainable consumption by reducing single-use items and extending product lifespans.
- Encouraging waste reduction through mechanisms such as reuse, repair, and recycling.