The annual greenhouse gas emissions caused by the production and processing of plastics jeopardize our ability to meet global climate challenges.
In 2019, the production and burning of plastic added more than 850 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Currently, greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic life cycle threaten the global community’s goal of reducing carbon emissions.
Oil and gas production and transportation
During the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels, which is used to create plastic, a significant amount of greenhouse gases is released.
The following direct emissions can be distinguished:
- Methane leakage and burning
- Emissions from fuel combustion and energy consumption during field development.
- emissions caused by disturbance of the natural landscape (forests and fields) under wells and pipelines
In the USA alone, in 2015, such emissions (mainly fractionated gas) accounted for at least 9.5–10.5 million tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year.
Outside the United States, where oil is the main raw material for plastics, approximately 108 million metric tons of CO2e per year is emitted during the production and transportation of hydrocarbons needed for plastics.
Oil and gas processing and plastics manufacturing
Plastic manufacturing is one of the fastest growing industries. In polymer production, a huge amount of greenhouse gases is released.
Energy-intensive chemical processing processes that are accompanied by CO2e emissions are used, for example:
- Cracking alkanes to olefins
- Polymerization and plasticization of olefins into plastic resins
- And other chemical processes
In 2015 , 24 ethylene plants in the United States emitted 17.5 million metric tons of CO2e, which equals 3.8 million passenger cars.
Worldwide, in 2015, emissions from cracking for the production of ethylene ranged from 184.3–213.0. million metric tons of CO2e, which is comparable to emissions from 45 million passenger cars during the year.
Such emissions are growing rapidly. US example
- New Shell Ethylene Plant Under Construction in Pennsylvania It will emit up to 2.25 million tons of CO2e per year.
- The new ethylene plant in Baytown, Texas, will be up to 1.4 million tons of CO2e per year
Annual emissions from these two new facilities alone will equal the addition of nearly 800,000 new cars. And these are only two enterprises among more than 300 new and modernizing petrochemical projects that are being built in the USA. Their purpose is the production of plastic.
850 million tons of greenhouse gases = 189 coal-fired power plants with a capacity of 500 MW
The bulk of the world’s plastic waste is disposed of in landfills. And only not more than 7% is processed or burned. Nevertheless, any of the methods directly or indirectly contributes to the additional emission of greenhouse gases.
- Landfills emit the least amount of greenhouse gases in absolute terms, but at the same time, they represent a significant amount of other risks.
- Utilization has a moderate level of emissions, but at the same time, it stimulates the production of hydrocarbons for the production of new plastics. That is, it also adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
- Incineration results in extremely high emissions and is the main source of emissions in the plastic waste management system.
According to forecasts, the trend towards the use of incineration and disposal methods will grow in the coming decades. So, emissions from plastic burning in the USA in 2015 are estimated at 5.9 million tons of CO2e.
World emissions from plastic packaging alone, which accounts for 40% of the demand for plastic, in 2015 amounted to 16 million tons of CO2e. This estimate does not include 32% of plastic packaging waste that is not calculable. We are talking about open burning plastic, which occurs without any energy recovery, or other practices that are widespread and difficult to quantify.
Plastic in the environment
A huge amount of plastic enters the environment. Such waste also affects greenhouse gas emissions. Although efforts to quantify such emissions are in their early stages, the first such studies showed that plastic floating on the surface of the ocean as it collapses constantly releases methane and other greenhouse gases.
Current estimates relate to only one percent of the waste that lies on the surface of the ocean. Damage from the plastic underwater cannot yet be estimated with accuracy.
It is important to note that the study showed that plastic on coastlines, in river mouths and on land emits greenhouse gases at an even greater rate.
Microplastic in the oceans prevents the absorption and isolation of carbon dioxide. Oceans absorbed about 20–40% of all anthropogenic carbon released from the beginning of the industrial era. Microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton) play an important role in the biological carbon process: they capture carbon from the surface of the ocean and carry it to the depth, preventing it from re-entering the atmosphere.
Plankton is contaminated with microplastic. Laboratory experiments suggest that plastic contamination can reduce the ability of phytoplankton to fix carbon through photosynthesis.
They also suggest that plastic contamination can lower the metabolic rate, reproductive functions, and survival of zooplankton, which carry carbon to the depths of the ocean.
Research into these effects is still in its infancy, but early signs that plastic pollution could interfere with Earth’s largest natural carbon uptake should be a cause for close attention and serious concern.