As our knowledge of the dangers of plastic and plastic bags grows, many are wondering whether or not our use of single-use plastic contributes to climate change.
Plastic bags and climate change have been linked in several ways due to its toxicity to the environment, wildlife and oceans. In essence, plastic bags contribute to the disruption of the eco-system by destroying habitats, emitting fossil fuels during decomposition and manufacturing and pollution.
What Is Climate Change?
Climate change is a big issue we hear a lot about, but what exactly is it in a nutshell or a simplified way? Climate change is basically long-term changes or shifts in the weather pattern or temperature which can be attributed to natural causes or man made.
Essentially, some research is showing that human activities have been major drivers of climate change since the 1800s through the burning of fossil fuels that can produce heat-trapping gasses.
Think about all the natural disasters, hotter temperatures, melting of ice caps and that’s what people refer to when they discuss climate change.
What Is The Problem With Plastic?
I don’t think I need to tell you the main reason that plastic is now considered ‘bad’ or needing to be addressed. But essentially, its impact on the environment is the number one reason plastic is being recognised as negative.
There are many reasons that plastic is bad – landfill contribution, environmental toxicity, risk to marine life and wildlife and even risk to humans in some cases.
Here are some key reasons plastics are being recognised as bad options, particularly for single-use items:
- Plastic can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose or break down in any environment, including landfill.
- When plastic decomposes, it breaks down into small pieces that may not be visible to the naked eye, however, these small pieces of plastic will never fully decompose and will potentially contaminate water, soil and air.
- Plastic can harm wildlife as they can get caught up in plastic – on land and in the ocean – or they can consume small pieces of plastic which will kill them either via choking or other health consequences or injury.
- The manufacturing process of plastic uses high amounts of electricity and water, while releasing large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
How Do Plastic Products Impact Climate Change?
When it comes to the impact of plastic on climate change, it really comes down to the impacts of plastic on the environment. As you can see above, plastic can be detrimental to landfill, soil, air, waterways and wildlife.
Research in 2019 estimated that 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gas would be added to the atmosphere by 2050 from the production and incineration of plastic alone. This is around 615 coal plants’ worth of carbon dioxide per year.
So let’s summarize the reasons plastic can be linked to climate change:
- Plastic extraction from fossil fuels such as coal, oil or gas
- Manufacturing of plastic using electricity, water and releasing greenhouse emissions
- The selling and use of plastic by mass amounts of people who may dispose of it in many ways
- The dumping of plastic in waterways or the environment
- The burning or incineration of plastic, releasing gasses into the air
- Landfill whereby the plastic will take decades to thousands of years to break down, leaving microplastics and toxic residue.
What Are Plastic Alternatives?
Consumers who are looking to make a change are leaning toward ‘bioplastics’ as a popular option. However, there are not enough items made to replace all plastics yet.
Bioplastics are classed as a range of plastic alternatives made from renewable sources such as organic materials. These plastics are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than traditional plastics. They are currently more expensive to manufacture as they aren’t as widely used as traditional plastic yet.
Bioplastics are considered safer for the environment from their manufacturing process which uses less resources and produces lower emissions, through to their ability to be disposed of and return to natural matter.
These plastics are made from renewable materials such as corn starch, tapioca starch and others. This means that when they are disposed of correctly, they reduce waste. They are able to be either quickly broken down (when it comes to landfill disposal) or composted back into the earth.
We can class compostable, PLA (polylactic acid) and biodegradable as the top three bioplastics on the market but other plastic alternatives in terms of bags include paper, fabric, recycled plastic and other woven options. These can be reused many times, washed (when it comes to fabric) and also able to be stored for long periods and carried longer distances with heavier weights.
Why Shift From Plastics?
The biggest benefit of using a plastic alternative for your plastic bags is reducing your environmental footprint. A typical plastic bag can take centuries to thousands of years to break down in landfill and so biodegradable or compostable plastic reduces this time vastly.
Traditional plastic – such as you’ll see in everything from food packaging, carry bags and trash bags to toys and building products – contributes negatively to our environment in many ways which we’ve discussed above.
There are also less traditional plastic chemicals in biodegradable plastics which means less environmental issues in the future such as pollution, toxicity and methane production in landfill. The manufacturing process is also more environmentally friendly than traditional plastic manufacturing.
Some benefits of biodegradable plastic:
- It will break down more rapidly in a landfill environment – in months or a year rather than thousands of years.
- Some ingredients are bio-based and will break down into their natural state.
- They can be disposed of easily in landfill with the rest of your household garbage.
- You can dispose of it easily in a public garbage bin or your home bin.
- Safe for humans, wildlife, animals and the environment (mostly).
- Less greenhouse emissions released during manufacturing.
- Less electricity and water used during manufacturing.
It should be noted that biodegradable plastic can leave behind some toxic residue when breaking down, due to the plastic components still present in the plastic.
What Other Impacts Do Plastic Have?
In addition to environmental and wildlife issues, plastic can also be harmful to humans in a couple of ways:
- Plastic products have been found to be toxic to humans. This is due to the chemicals added to plastics and then absorbed by humans, such as from water or other bottles. Microplastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can also be toxic.
- There have also been studies shown that certain chemicals found in plastic can leach out of the plastic and into food and beverages. This has been linked to health problems such as reduced fertility, cancers or metabolic disorders.
What Are Solutions To Reducing Climate Change With Plastic?
We can all do our part to reduce our consumption and disposal of traditional plastics through finding alternatives and reducing our use and reliance on plastic. Particularly, single-use plastics can often be replaced with reusable, compostable or biodegradable options.
The Government can also make a change by implementing single-use plastic bans, plastic bag bans and plastic bag taxes to discourage the use of plastic. They can also support composting in their cities and provide options for disposal of compostable or biodegradable products in the normal waste cycle.
Some other tips for reducing your plastic consumption include:
- Avoid single-use plastic such as straws, cups or cutlery by choosing stores that use alternatives OR bringing your own metal straws or cutlery, glass or metal cups and the like.
- Bring an alternative bag for your shopping – think woven/fabric or compostable.
- Recycle where possible with what can be recycled (i.e. soda bottles)
- Replace plastic containers with Tupperware/reusable such as metal, glass or reusable plastics that will last years
- Buy more fresh and bulk food options to reduce packaged items
- Switch from cling wrap and freezer bags to reusable containers and ziplock bags
- Compost at home if you are interested and can do so
- Upcycle plastic items or reuse where possible.
Unfortunately our climate is changing and while some of this is attributed to the natural world, much of this can be seen as man-made concerns. While one person can’t completely fix the problem, we can all contribute in our own ways to reducing our contributions to climate change.
You can do this by understanding the impact that plastic has on the environment and choosing alternatives where you can. By being informed and making better choices, you can be assured you are doing the best you can to reduce your environmental footprint.
Consider areas in your life where you can replace plastic completely or reduce your impact. Can you consider reusable items or compostable? Can you encourage your workplace to also make some changes?
You can also carry your own reusable items such as shopping bags, cutlery, coffee cups, bottles and containers to use when buying coffee or eating takeaway foods.