Plastics have become ubiquitous in modern life due to their affordability and versatility. Their global demand has quadrupled in the past four decades and is expected to keep rising, resulting in dire consequences for the environment and human health.
However, a recent study published in Nature Sustainability sheds light on the overlooked threat posed by plastics production to the environment. Through meticulous analysis, researchers reveal that the global carbon footprint of plastics has doubled since 1995, reaching 2.2 billion tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) in 2015. This is higher than was originally estimated, and it accounts for 4.5% of the worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases.
While the public is aware of the environmental harm caused by plastic waste, such as microplastics polluting water and soil, the focus on the global environmental impact of plastics has primarily been on their disposal phase. There are few studies about the production of plastics, which also affects the climate and air quality.
Moreover uncovered by the researchers was a 70% rise in the worldwide impact of plastics from fine particulate air pollution, this resulted in over 2.2 million disability-adjusted lifespans (DALYs) in 2015. This alarming data underscores the urgent need to address the environmental impact of plastics production.
Here are the key findings from the study:
Plastics Production and Carbon Footprint
The team behind the study analyzed the climate and health impact of the global plastics supply chain over a 20-year period. They determined the greenhouse gas emissions generated across the life cycle of plastics - from fossil resource extraction, to processing into product classes and use, through to end of life, including recycling, incineration, and landfill.
Their research shows that the booming plastics production in coal-based, newly industrialized countries such as China, India, Indonesia, and South Africa is the main cause of the growing carbon footprint of plastics effecting Nature Sustainability. The energy and process heat needed for the production of plastics in these countries comes primarily from the combustion of coal, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Coal is also a small component of the raw components required for creating polymers.
The researchers found that the amount of fossil energy required to produce plastics is double what it is in raw form. The manufacture of plastics therefore constitutes the majority of all greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions, even in the worst-case scenario when all plastics are burnt. In fact, the overall production phase of plastics is responsible for 96% of the carbon footprint of plastics.
Plastics Production and Health Footprint
Coal combustion for plastics production also has a significant impact on human health. As coal is burnt, it produces very small particles that build up in the atmosphere. Asthma, bronchitis, and coronary heart disease can all be brought on by such particulate matter, which would be extremely hazardous t
The detrimental effects on health are increasing as coal is utilized more and more for process heat, power, and as a raw material in the production of plastics. In China, for example, the plastics-related carbon footprint of the transport sector has increased more than 50-fold since 1995, while in Indonesia and India, it has increased in the electronics and construction industries, respectively.