Updated: Jun 10
Climate Change is happening. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), held in November 2021 in Glasgow, and the recently released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasize the urgency of acting on deteriorating climatic conditions.
The window to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial averages is rapidly closing. Resolutions and commitments made this year could determine the course of forthcoming extreme climatic events. There is an urgent need to control the rise in temperature before we see mass extinction of species, displaced humans and severe changes in agricultural practices. Several warnings have been delivered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the third volume of its latest assessment report, published on April 4th, 2022.
Plastics and climate change are inextricably linked. While the Glasgow talks focused mainly on greenhouse gas emissions, ocean plastic pollution was also in view, as awareness grows around the “vicious cycle” in which ocean plastic pollution exacerbates climate change and vice versa. Just ten days ahead of COP26, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released a new report underscoring the effects of ocean plastic on climate change. The assessment: plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water could more than double by 2030, and the consequences threaten both sea and shore.
The world’s appetite for plastic is a major driver of climate change, and the two issues are closely linked. Plastics alone account for an estimated 15 percent of the world’s carbon budget, equivalent to approximately 1.7 gigatons of CO2. Under business as usual, by 2050 that number is expected to nearly quadruple. Another report released in the U.S. in the run-up to COP26 makes a stunning comparison: the plastic sector’s emissions are equivalent to 116 coal-fired power plants last year.
“If plastic were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter." Thus begins Judith Enck, President of the American NGO, Beyond Plastics. It begs us to ponder, Is plastic the new Coal? In this fight against climate change, while we limit the use of coal, are we encouraging a new evil?
Beyond the production of plastic, plastics also contribute to climate change during all its life-cycle phases - Consumption, End-of-Life and while Closing the Loop. Most people think that when plastic is discarded in recycling bins, it goes away. But there is no “away” – only 9 percent is recycled globally and the rest is dumped in the natural environment. In fact, South Asia is one of the largest generators of plastic waste, discarding more than 26 million tons of plastics every day. South Asia also has among the world’s highest portion of waste that is openly dumped – 75 percent.
When not recycled or disposed of in a controlled manner, discarded plastic waste generates GHG emissions when exposed to solar radiation both in air and water. Around 18 million tons of plastics originating from South Asia are mismanaged and, consequently, are washed into the ocean, where they emit methane and ethylene due to exposure to sunlight. Polyethylene, the common plastic bag, is the highest emitter of both gasses and is the most produced and discarded synthetic polymer globally.
It’s true that a lot of types of plastics can technically be recycled but the global rate of recycling is very low: currently, less than 10% of plastics are ultimately recycled on a global scale. Even though recycling could significantly reduce the impact of plastic pollution on the environment and its contribution to climate change, only 5 percent of total waste generated in South Asia is recycled. The AIR (Avoid, Intercept, Redesign) circular economy principles applied to cement, aluminium, steel, and plastics could reduce the combined emissions of these industries by 40 percent.
These figures hide the big differences between recycling in developed countries, with larger investments in recycling infrastructure (and often higher recycling rates) and the rates in the developing world, where communities lack the infrastructure necessary to manage plastic waste.
Developing countries have a strong network of informal workers who are the invisible link in providing the low-hanging fruits of recycling of collection and segregation, but the higher value addition processes of upcycling are largely missing in developing countries. Thus, it’s very important for developing countries to invest in technology and infrastructure in processes of recycling and upcycling plastic to ensure we reach our emission targets for 2030 and 2050.
On the other hand, climate change events also impact and increase plastic pollution! Microplastics are now being transported through the atmosphere through weather events, and can be transported over tens of kilometres to near-pristine and remote areas. Evidence is also building of interconnectedness between the freshwater, terrestrial and marine realms and is becoming established as a part of the carbon cycle.
Studies show that climate change will further impact plastic pollution fluxes and concentrations in its global distribution. For example, Arctic sea ice is a major microplastic sink, with densities of between 38 and 234 microplastic particles per cubic metre. As sea ice volume is expected to decrease through melting due to warming temperatures, microplastics will be released into the marine environment causing severe damage to the marine population which in turn impact the life on land. Further inputs of terrestrial plastic into aquatic environments is likely increased by stronger winds, more frequent rain events and sea level rise may release plastics trapped in coastal sediments and increase the risk of flooding.
Flooding of global rivers has the potential to further worsen riverine plastic pollution, with flood risk areas often becoming sites with high plastic mobilisation during flooding events. Increased rainfall, associated with monsoons, is estimated to increase estimated monthly river plastic inputs into the ocean. Napper et al. (2021) estimated the microplastic concentration entering the Bay of Bengal from the Ganges at approximately 1 billion microplastics per day during the pre-monsoon season and 3 billion post-monsoon season.
At Conserve India, we have been upcycling single-use sheet plastics (polyethylene) into a substitute for leather to craft fashion accessories like handbags, travel bags, laptop sleeves etc with relatively lower carbon emissions than traditional recycling. Technologies like these need to be implemented on scale to create effective impact. Realizing the lack of such technologies in developing countries, I joined forces with other plastic waste innovators from 6 countries, across 3 continents to come together, to develop Plastiskul.
Plastiskul is an international consortium of innovators in the plastic management space who got together in Paris, France, to design localised microfactories for plastic waste management. These microfactories are customised as per local needs to utilise the plastic waste available to create construction, stationery, furniture etc, using several high-end technologies that can potentially close the gap between recycling rates in developing and developed countries.
To conclude, it's important to note and evaluate the contribution of plastics in the climate crises. While developed countries are the major contributors for emissions currently, we must ensure that developing countries like India develop and stick to an effective climate strategy. Plastic consumption, especially of single-use plastics, must decrease globally. Solutions for plastic waste management need to be climate-friendly and socially inclusive, especially in developing countries like India. We must encourage the use of recycled/upcycled plastic products to help scale this industry to help ensure sustained climate conditions. Plastic must not become the new Coal in this climate emergency.