Koji Sasahara / AP
Plastic waste gets a lot of attention when pictures of dead whales with stomach full of plastic bags hit the news. Pieces of plastic also support cities, and small plastic particles are even floating in the air.
A little overlooked is how to make plastic initially affects the environment, especially global warming. Plastic actually has a large carbon footprint, but it also makes many of the options for plastic. And that is what makes replacing plastic a problem without a clear solution.
Plastic is just a form of fossil fuel. Your plastic water bottle, your grocery bag, your cumin full of cucumbers … they are all made of oil or natural gas. It takes a lot of energy to make it happen.
"The real story of the plastic's impact on the environment begins at the wellhead where it comes out of the ground," said Carroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law. "And it never stops."
The center, also known as CIEL, has gathered global data on how much climate warming the greenhouse gas is produced in making all that plastic, from cradle to grave.
Firstly, gas leakage occurs at wellhead. Then there are leaks from pipelines that take oil and gas to a chemical plant. Then there is the long chemical process of turning oil or gas into raw plastic resin. "Plastic is among the most energy-intensive materials to produce," says Muffett.
The factories then use more energy to fashion the plastic in packaging or automotive parts or textiles. Truck transport to consumers generates more emissions. And when plastic is used, it is often burned to produce electricity, which is yet another source of greenhouse gases.
All told, says Muffett, "emissions from plastic production and combustion can make 56 gigatons of coal between now and 2050." There are 56 billion tonnes, or nearly 50 times the annual emissions of all coal-fired power plants in the United States. Another study, led by researcher Songwon Suh at the University of California, Santa Barbara, predicted even more emissions from plastic production and packaging than the CIEL report did.
These 2050 emissions forecasts are large because plastic production is expected to quadruple then, according to the World Economic Forum. The American Chemistry Council says the US industry is planning to spend $ 47 billion on new plastic production capacity over the next decade.
"The key for people to take away is that the plastic crisis is a climate crisis that hides in clear view," Muffett says.
One thing that the CIEL analysis does not, however, examines the carbon footprint of things that will replace plastics – things like paper, canvas or glass.
Several research groups like this and this one, including the UK Environmental Agency. And plastic comes out ahead most of the time. (Heavier plastic plates, such as low density polyethylene or woven polypropylene bags, have larger climatic and energy humps than paper, but they are more durable and you get more use out of them.)
Chemical engineer Beverly Sauer from the Eastern Research Group, an independent research firm, suffered such a study that compared a mixture of different plastic packaging with substitutions such as paper. "The impact associated with plastics is generally much lower than the effect on the blend of substitutes that replace packaging," Sauer said. ERG's analysis calculated the amount of raw materials, as well as electricity, fuel, water and other materials needed to make and use paper and plastic packaging. Plastic uses less. And at the end of life, paper in a landfill can emit greenhouse gases when it breaks down.
Although some grams of plastic have a higher carbon footprint than other types of packaging, you need less of it. It's a great advantage plastic has – it's easy.
"Plastic packaging achieves its purpose with very little weight of material," said Sauer. So if a paper bag weighs twice what a plastic does, she says: "Not only do you have to produce twice the weight of material, you have to transport twice the weight of material [and] you have twice the weight of material to handle at the end of the Utility Life. "
The ERG analysis was done for the American Chemistry Council, which says plastic replaces things that would do even more climate damage. "Plastic is often used in products that help reduce much more greenhouse gas emissions during their lifecycle," said Steve Russell, ACC's Plastic Vice President.
But life cycle analysis may vary depending on the energy costs researchers choose to include when considering a product or practice. And consumption habits count: If people use paper bags and do not use plastic, the benefit of the plastic shrinks.
Furthermore, climate is not necessarily all that matters.There are other things to consider when considering plastic heritage – as almost permanent coal and health effects
Angela Howe is a lawyer at the Surfrider Foundation, a group started in the 1980s, mainly by surfers on US beaches. "They pick up trash and they see that it's plentiful plastic, overwhelming," Howe says. It is plastic that marine animals eat and which breaks down into small pieces that pollute rivers, seas and their own food and drinking water.
"Where does our waste go and what can we do I do to stop the cycle where it ends up in the sea in the whale's stomach? "she asks. Howe also notes that carbon footprint analyzes typically do not measure the cost and impact of having to clean up plastic coal.
Environmental groups are trying to sort the plastic versus paper problem. Susan Ruffo, a plastic expert with Ocean Conservancy, agrees that plastic garbage is bad for the seas and the health of marine animals as well as humans. But there are also climate change.
"We see climate as one of the most serious threats to the sea, certainly in the long term," says Ruffo. "So you can't reduce the climate impact of a solution you should look at."
So if people want less plastic, they have to choose replacements carefully. "You know," she says, "we have a story as a species to solve a big-intensity problem, just to find that we have created another."
One thing that beats experts is that There is too much garbage, whether it be plastic or paper or something else. And people do more of it than ever before.