The impact of plastic pollution is bigger than expected

According to a new analysis, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics more than doubled between 1995 and 2015. In 2015, nearly two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GHG emissions converted to carbon dioxide) were around 4.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. .

While the improper disposal of plastics and other environmental pollutants has become a major focus, a current study also points to emissions from plastic production. The study, conducted by a team from ETH Zurich (Switzerland) led by Livia Cabernard, was published in the special journal Nature Sustainability.

Twice the amount of fossil fuel

Cabernard was quoted in a letter from his university. However, he and his colleagues were able to show that about twice as much fossil fuels (coal, crude oil, and natural gas) are used to provide electricity and process heat during production.

The research author mainly researches the import and export of plastics and raw materials. Thanks to the new method, they avoided double accounting for emissions. This can happen during recycling, for example, where old plastic has been included in the carbon dioxide balance.


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The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon necessary for life on Earth. © AFP

Burning fossil fuels produces fine dust

Researchers see the explosion of plastic production in coal-based developing countries such as China, India, Indonesia and South Africa as the main cause of the increase in greenhouse gases in plastics. “The carbon footprint associated with plastics for China’s transportation sector, Indonesia’s electronics industry and India’s construction sector has increased more than 50-fold since 1995,” Cabernard said. Burning fossil fuels also produces particles that are harmful to human health.

The plastics sector reflects inequality in the global economy: “In 2015, 85 percent of workers required to consume plastic in the European Union and the United States were employed overseas, but 80 percent of the associated value added was generated locally,” according to research type. The most labor-intensive and energy-intensive parts of plastic production are located in countries such as China, India, Indonesia and South Africa, where the share of fossil fuels in energy production is very large.

No general ban on plastic

However, the researchers did not conclude from their personalities that the world should live without plastic. “A general ban on plastics is counterproductive, as alternative materials often have a greater impact on the environment.” Instead, scientists are calling for a worldwide halt to coal use, a shift to renewable energy, and increased energy efficiency in the plastics production process. They assume that global plastic production will increase by 40 percent between 2015 and 2030.

“In my opinion, this study uses the latest systematic understanding of the type of analysis that is being carried out,” said Sangwon Suh of the University of California, Santa Barbara, California, Media Science Center. Suh himself has done a similar analysis. Andreas Koehler of the Oko Institute in Freiburg also praised the research, saying: “It creates a comprehensive and global picture of the importance of plastics to the climate.” This approach can be further developed if different polymer types and manufacturing processes are also distinguished.


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