Plastic in the Environment- what’s the Problem?

Plastic is not just a waste problem.

Plastic pollutes our environment and is one of the biggest problems for our ecosystem. Everybody knows that. And because of that most people think that plastic waste is mainly a waste problem and has nothing to do with the climate crisis. Sadly, that’s not true. Plastic is an absolute catastrophe in terms of climate impact.

The problem quantified.

Scientists estimate that plastic production will double in the next 20 years and will quadruple by 2050 [PA]. This would mean that plastic production could become responsible for about 17% of the global carbon budget for the 1.5 degrees celsius goal.
And that’s not even the worst case scenario. To make matters worse, there is no valid data about the environmental impacts, e.g. the amount of leaking gas of the pipelines or wood clearing [PA], caused by plastic production.

Why does plastic production increase so quickly? 

One of the main reasons for the drastic increase of plastic production is the increased fracking of natural gases in the US. The prices are incredibly low and the plastic industry is a thankful customer.
It is a very lucrative win-win-situation for the producers, but our planet has to pay the price for them. To get an impression of how profitable this is, we can, for example, take a look at the investments in the petrochemical industry. Since 2010, producers invested 200 Billion € and they are just getting started [PA]. The rubber and plastic industry itself has a revenue of around 83 Billion € [KI].
Obviously, there are more reasons for the increasing plastic production, e.g. the increasing amount of packaging and the increasing throwaway mentality. Additionally, there is a view in many developing countries that plastic is a symbol of wealth and progress.

What causes these massive emissions?

Plastic production is very energy-intensive and like most of the other products, plastic is produced mainly with fossil fuel energy, which leads to high CO2e emissions.
A large part of these emissions come from the leaks of methane in the production and the transport of plastic. And as if that is not enough, large portions of forests are cleared and whole ecosystems destroyed for the purpose of producing plastic.

These impacts cannot be clearly quantified, but it is obvious that the damage is critical.
One other problem is that plastic is not only harmful for our planet while we use it, but especially when we do not need it anymore. Not even 10% of the global plastic is recycled and because of this there are only three different ways to get rid of it.

1st It is burned in the so called waste-to-energy method, which produces energy but has extremely high emissions.

2nd It lays in our environment for decades or even centuries. The emissions cannot be quantified yet.

3rd It is consumed by plants and animals and damages our ecosystems massively. Plants and animals are dying or are not able to store as much CO2 as they are used to, which makes the climate crisis even worse. Here, the damages are still not quantifiable either.

Long story short

The effects of plastic production on the climate are massive, but will likely get way worse in the next few decades. We have to stop the plastic trap together. And we will need everyone of us to fight the climate and plastic crisis!
For that we all need to have four easy words in mind:

Refuse. Reuse. Reduce. Recycle.

*CO2-equivalents is a unit to compare different greenhouse gases and translate them into the climate impact of CO2.

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KI: Kunstoffindustrie von Statista