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"Carteniros" collecting recyclable paper and plastic at the Puerto Madryn dump next to Peninsula Valdes. It is thought that these dumps contribute to the escalating populations of Kelp gulls and worsening gull predation on whales. Valdes Peninsula, Patagonia, Argentina © James Frankham / WWF

Plastic waste and climate change - what's the connection?

04 Jul 2019

Keywords
  • plastic
  • climate change
  • greenhouse gas emission

From an interview with Kerri Major
Engagement Manager Partnerships & Innovation, WWF-Australia

Growing up in Singapore, I didn't question the role of plastic. Durable and cheap, it was everywhere, and everyone used it. It wasn’t until my environmentally-conscious mother started refusing plastic bags from shops and even reusing laundry water for flushing - that I came to understand the impact that plastic had on our environment.

Now I know all too well. And the impacts are way more sinister than anyone first thought. 

Because the world's growing production of plastics - about 100 million tonnes annually - is not just clogging landfill sites and threatening our oceans and marine life; it's accelerating climate change.

Plastic is one of the most persistent pollutants on Earth. It's made to last - and it does, often for 400 years or more. And at every step in its lifecycle, even long after it has been discarded, plastic creates greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to the warming of our world.

A report by the Center for International Environmental Law, released in May, concluded that the impact of plastic production on the world's climate this year will equate to the output of 189 coal-fired power stations. By 2050, when plastic production is expected to have tripled, it will be responsible for up to 13% of our planet's total carbon budget - on a par with what 615 power stations emit.

So how is plastic implicated in climate change?

Almost all plastic is derived from materials (like ethylene and propylene) made from fossil fuels (mostly oil and gas). The process of extracting and transporting those fuels, then manufacturing plastic creates billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases. For example, 4% of the world's annual petroleum production is diverted to making plastic, and another 4% gets burned in the refining process.

But how we manage all the plastic that then goes into circulation is equally troubling. Of the almost 3 million tonnes of plastic that Australia produces each year, 95% is discarded after a single use. Less than 12% is recycled, which leaves a staggering amount to be disposed of - in landfills or incinerated.

Mountain garbage in Municipal landfill for household waste © Shutterstock / kwanchai.c / WWF

We used to rely on countries like China, Myanmar and Cambodia to handle our waste plastic. It was convenient to bale it up and ship it offshore for someone else to deal with. 

However, the poorly-regulated incineration in those developing nations posed considerable threats to human health and the environment. Globally, in this year alone, researchers estimate that the production and incineration of plastic will pump more than 850 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By 2050, those emissions could rise to 2.8 billion tonnes.

Alarmingly, at least 8 million tonnes of discarded plastic also enters our oceans each year, and plastic pollution at sea is on course to double by 2030. Plastic has even been found in the deepest place on Earth - in the Mariana Trench, nearly 11 kilometres below sea level.

In our oceans, which provide the largest natural carbon sink for greenhouse gases, plastic leaves a deadly legacy. It directly chokes and smothers a host of marine animals and habitats and can take hundreds of years to break down

As it does, sunlight and heat cause the plastic to release powerful greenhouse gases, leading to an alarming feedback loop. As our climate changes, the planet gets hotter, the plastic breaks down into more methane and ethylene, increasing the rate of climate change, and so perpetuating the cycle.

Plastic pollution - a plastic bag and rubbish float in the ocean © Shutterstock / Rich Carey / WWF

The smaller particles (known as microplastics) that break off and disperse are also unwittingly ingested by marine animals, including plankton, and some of the fish we eat. And why should we care about plankton? Well these tiny powerhouses play a critical role in taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water and sequestering it in deep ocean sinks. The full effects of this are still being studied, but the essential premise is this: when microplastics threaten plankton populations, more carbon will re-enter the waters and atmosphere.

Given that our oceans have successfully absorbed 30-50% of atmospheric carbon produced since the start of the industrial era, it's easy to see just what's at stake. And this leads us back to the plastic consumption on land that is driving this mounting plastic pollution crisis. 

The more plastic we make, the more fossil fuels we need, the more we exacerbate climate change. 

The only way we can now address the problem is to curb the production of plastic, especially of the single-use variety, and to ramp up recycling.

Green recycle bin surrounded by plastic bottles / Photo by rawpixels from Pexels

Reducing plastic use and waste is a key component of WWF's work. We're committed to collaborating with our supporters, corporate partners and industry bodies to improve plastic management and limit its environmental impact. It's critical if we are to curb greenhouse gas emissions that are exacerbating climate change, and to protect our marine environments.

Thanks to Mum, I'm now a passionate advocate for recycling. I believe there’s much we can do to re-use the plastics we produce, but it's no longer enough. It's time to put single-use plastic under wraps and begin re-imagining a future without it.

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