The work was undertaken by two researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and sheds new light on the environmental impact of plastic.
Published in the peer-reviewed Nature Climate Change, the research notes that global plastics production has quadrupled over the past four decades.
“This is, to our best knowledge, the first global assessment of the life cycle of greenhouse gas emissions from all plastics,” said co-author Sangwon Suh. “It’s also the first evaluation of various strategies to reduce the emissions of plastics.”
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The researchers advocated “aggressive” action to reduce the environmental impact of plastics
The authors warn that if the proliferation of plastic continues unchecked, it will account for 15% of the entire global carbon budget by 2050.
They write that the “aggressive application of renewable energy, recycling and demand-management strategies” is necessary to ensure that emissions levels in 2050 are comparable to current levels.
Moving to 100% use of renewable energy for plastic production with fossil fuel-based feedstock would result in a cut in greenhouse gas emissions of almost half compared to not making the change, the researchers found. Drawing on plant-based feedstock (such as sugarcane) would result in an even more marked reduction of the gases.
Ultimately, reducing demand for plastic would be the strongest lever to pull. Suh said this is a difficult project, however, as plastic is a highly versatile and cheap material. It has proved especially popular in developing countries as the societies become wealthier and consume more.
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Every stage of the plastic life cycle adds to greenhouse gas emissions
The impact of plastic production was revealed in the study to be far worse than previously thought. The emission of greenhouse gases begins with plastic resins being sourced from petroleum, which necessitates extraction and distillation. Manufacturing these resins into commercial products and transporting them produces further greenhouse gas emissions.
The carbon footprint of plastic does not end there, however. Dumping, burning, composting and even recycling plastics all leads to further release of carbon dioxide. In the year 2015, almost 1.8 billion metric tones of carbon dioxide were emitted by the industry as a whole.
Plastic has been in the environmental news headlines this year for different reasons. The level of plastic waste in the oceans has hit disastrous levels, with multiple reports of animals having died from ingesting large amounts of rubbish in the ocean.
The EU has legislate a number of single-use plastic items out of circulation by 2021. TIME estimated the new laws, which include more stringent application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, will save some US$25 billion in environmental damage by 2030.
Many companies are also setting their own recycling targets. Yesterday, Coca-Cola committed to using 70% recycled plastic for its beverage products across Australia by the end of 2019.