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Plastic is a Part of the Global Climate Crisis Hiding in Plain Sight

Plastic is part of the global climate crisis hidden in ordinary sight

. In the past few years, plastic has made headlines as a key environmental challenge, but did you know that the plastic pollution crisis that flooded our land and oceans is also a major threat to the Earth’s climate?

Almost every piece of plastic starts with fossil fuels, and greenhouse gases are emitted at every stage of the plastic life cycle: from the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels, to manufacturing and production, to waste disposal and so on.

In 2019, the production and incineration of plastics will emit approximately 859 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere. As the petrochemical and plastic industries plan to expand production on a large scale, plastics may lead to a reduction of more than 56 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 . The large-scale and rapid expansion of greenhouse gases from petrochemical and plastic production threatens the EU’s goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

In fact, in November 2018, the European Commission proposed a new EU 2050-a long-term climate strategy to promote prosperity and a climate-neutral economy, stating that the EU should achieve a net 0% greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although the strategy treats plastics as part of the current environmental crisis, different paths to achieve this ambitious goal are still being discussed, and they often lack proper consideration of how each stage of the plastic life cycle affects the environment, Climate and human health.

To address this pressing issue, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) today released an extensive report that analyzes how each stage of the plastic life cycle affects the climate and identifies the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, uncalculated emissions The source and may lead to underestimation.

In particular, the report analyzes how various technologies used to manage plastic waste have different effects on the profile of plastic greenhouse gas emissions. Plastics are landfilled, recycled or incinerated. The greenhouse gas emissions from landfills are the least in absolute terms, but there are other major risks. Emissions from recycling are moderate, but it replaces new plastics on the market, and incineration causes extremely high emissions.

As mentioned earlier, the end of the service life of plastic does not mean the end of its impact. Although manufacturers claim that incineration can represent a solution to reduce plastic pollution without increasing the level of toxic emissions, the CIEL report clearly shows that incineration causes very high greenhouse gas emissions and is the main driver of plastic waste management emissions. In fact, according to the report, the net greenhouse gas emissions from the incineration of plastic packaging in 2015 were estimated to be 16 million tons.

Finally, the conversion of waste plastics into new petrochemical feedstocks or chemical recycling that burns them as fuels and the conversion of waste into energy may significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions while increasing the toxic exposure of communities near incinerators. Such operations transfer the threat of plastic from the ocean to the air, and at the same time exacerbate its impact on the climate. This is the definition of an error solution.

In addition, the report warns that other disposal methods (such as converting plastic into fuel) may also have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. As highlighted by the Zero Waste Europe and Bellona joint briefing, there are major concerns about using non-renewable waste streams (such as plastics) to produce fuels because they may have harmful effects on climate change mitigation and circular economy measures. Therefore, it is important for the European Commission to formulate a legislative framework that excludes the use of plastic waste fuels, because they are neither the climate crisis nor the possible solution to the plastic pollution problem, but in fact they have the risk of exacerbating both.

Fortunately, burning our waste—especially plastic parts—is not the only way forward, and the zero-waste approach is gaining traction. In fact, the report also provides a series of recommendations for policymakers and other stakeholders to help prevent these carbon emissions hidden in the plastic life cycle from getting out of control, and support a zero-waste systematic approach to prevent and reduce waste.

Ultimately, any solution to reduce the production and use of plastic is a powerful strategy to address the impact of the plastic life cycle on the climate. These solutions require urgent support from decision makers and charity funders, as well as the actions of a global grassroots movement. Stopping the expansion of petrochemical and plastic production and leaving fossil fuels underground will be the most reliable and effective way to reduce the impact of the life cycle of plastics on the climate.

Overall, the main findings of the report are clear: Plastic threatens the climate on a global scale, and burning it will only exacerbate this problem. In order to stop the impact of plastics on the climate, ambitious actions are urgently needed. Therefore, Zero Waste Europe urges to focus on waste management solutions at the top of the waste hierarchy. Strategies most likely to reduce plastic climate and environmental risks include: formulating a series of EU-wide waste prevention policies to end the production and use of single-use plastics, supporting new waste-free business models, and promoting the transition to a fully circular economy .


CIEL’s report: Plastics and Climate: The Hidden Costs of the Plastic Planet

The report is the result of the joint efforts of the Global Incinerator Alternatives Alliance (GAIA), #breakfreefromplastic, Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance and 5 Gyres under the coordination of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

Bellona and Zero Waste Europe-Joint Briefing: Recycling Carbon Fuels in the Renewable Energy Directive EU Long-term Climate Strategy 2050 EU Climate and Energy Framework

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