How does plastic pollution contribute to climate change?
Climate change is the long-term shift in the weather patterns that define the local, regional and global climate of the Earth.
In other words, climate is the usual, average weather of a country over many years, while climate change is when those conditions shift and change the average meteorological conditions of that country. The plastic pollution crisis overwhelming our oceans and lands is also an imminent threat to Earth's changing climate.
In 2019, the production and burning of plastics added more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, which is equivalent to 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal-fired power plants.
The release of these gasses threatening the global climate starts from the extraction process of plastics continuing the cycle with the excessive consumption and disposal until waste accumulates releasing even more gasses as we speak.
The extraction and transportation of fuels to create plastics produces specific greenhouse gasses and consumes nearly 6% of the world's oil, which is expected to increase to 20% consumption by 2050. The source of these gasses is the direct emissions such as the flow of methane, a gas flammability, emissions from fuel combustion and energy consumption in the process of drilling for oil or gas, and emissions caused when drilling land is cleared of forests and vegetation to create wells and pipelines for the drilling process.
Plastic refining is one of the largest and fastest growing emitters of greenhouse gasses. Plastic production also requires excessive energy and creates intense emissions through the cracking of alkanes into olefins, the polymerization and plasticization of olefins into plastic resins, and many other chemicals in the refining process. Globally in 2015, emissions from cracking to produce ethylene were 184.3-213.0 million metric tons, enough to pollute 45 million passenger cars driven for 1 year.
At current levels, greenhouse gasses released from the entire life cycle of plastics threaten the ability of global communities to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees.
Plastic gets either thrown in nature, or taken to landfills ending up recycled or burned. In absolute terms, plastic landfilling emits the least greenhouse gasses of all other processing models, although it does present other higher risks. Recycling has a modest emission, even though this process uses 50% of virgin plastic to recycle the old ones, it fairly replaces virgin plastic from the market, making it slightly more favorable from an emissions point of view. As of combustion, this process releases extreme emissions into the atmosphere making it one of the primary problems in how waste is being mismanaged.