PLASTIC – A HIDDEN STRAND IN THE GLOBAL CLIMATE CRISIS
In today’s world, climate change is one hot topic. Environmentalists are urging national leaders to formulate policies and implement changes to save the planet, because well, there is no planet B!
But did you know that climate change and plastic pollution are closely linked? These two aren’t separate issues but are like two sides of the same coin. We are so immersed in formulating policies for climate change that I fear it is sidelining the fact that we are also in the midst of a plastic waste crisis!
But now, there must be some questions that will pop up in your mind. How are plastics affecting the climate? What exactly is it turning plastic pollution into a global climate crisis?
Firstly, I want to astonish you with the fact that almost all of the eight billion tons of plastic ever produced, continue to exist! Plastic is highly durable and resistant to degradation, making it impossible to break down completely and ensuring that it lasts for centuries.
There is a pretty common notion that when plastic gets dumped in the environment, it causes harm. But that is not the case! Cradle to grave, plastic causes harm! At every stage of its lifecycle, it is poisonous to the environment!
Let us dive deep into its stages.
The birth of any plastic product begins by extracting crude oil or methane gas. The main extraction methods are mining, drilling, and fracking. Methane and toxic aerosol emissions, resource depletion, harmful wastewater contamination, and increased potential for oil spills and earthquakes are caused due to fracking.
REFINEMENT AND CRACKING
The next step is plastic refining. After fossil fuel extraction, the raw materials get shipped to a refinery. Let me also inform you that refining is greenhouse-gas intensive. Globally, carbon dioxide emissions from ethylene production are projected to expand by 34% between 2015 and 2030.
PROCESSING AND MANUFACTURING
The core ingredient of plastics is resins. Resins are produced by chemically modifying ethylene and polyethylene. This chemical processing can be done in several different ways and, that’s what those numbers on the bottom of many plastic products indicate!
DISTRIBUTION, CONSUMPTION, AND WASTE MANAGEMENT
40% of the plastic comes from single-use products. Usually, the packaging is for single-use. This packaging can be processed in three different ways: landfill, incineration, or recycling.
Out of all the options, waste incineration has the greatest climate impact! Based on projections from the World Energy Council, if plastics production and incineration increase as expected, greenhouse gas emissions will be raised to 91 million metric tons by 2050.
On the other hand, landfilling has a much lower climate impact than incineration. Still, it has other problems of its own. When plastics get dumped, they usually fly away and enter water bodies. Due to exposure to water, heat, etc., plastics get converted to microplastics. Then they get consumed by aquatic animals and finally, by humans! Now, you know where that plastic in your body came from.
Finally, yet importantly we have recycling, which we are taught is the best method. But, the plight of the situation is such that it is a very costly process, and recycled plastic (2% of total plastic) has low commercial value. This rarely makes recycling profitable.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
With such harm being caused to nature at every step, one would ponder the solution for this? But if there is a will, there is a way! When developing solutions, it’s important to think critically about the materials to replace plastics. It is possible to reduce emissions at every stage of the life cycle.
The best way is through resource conservation. Producing and consuming responsibly, reusing, and recovering materials without incineration or landfilling is the best way forward. However, achieving this would require a massive cultural shift and a makeover for each step in a product’s life cycle.
Enactus SGGSCC’s Project Dariya, based on the same lines, is a relatively economical response to the huge problem of unethical disposal of waste in landfills and oceans. It is a highly successful comprehensive model in which the first segment consists of a trash barrier called Wastrawl, which is suspended in streams that block trash from entering into oceans.
The second segment is a waste exchange platform that helps households in source segregation and disposal of their waste ethically. It uses recycling banks and a mobile application for an exchange of dry waste against points redeemable for necessities. The total waste collected is sold to the recycling operators for further conversion into new by-products like plastic furniture, segregation bins, tree guards, incense sticks and plastic bricks.
To conclude, reducing emissions associated with plastics depends on more than one variable. We need to implement a strategy that includes all: reducing waste, retaining materials by refurbishing or remanufacturing, and recycling.
Anyhow, let’s get this on the table right away, without mincing words. Concerning the climate crisis, we are in deep trouble. So yes, it’s time to pull your socks up