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Plastic is even worse than we thought for the environment
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Plastic is even worse than we thought for the environment

Researchers have shown that plastics have a greater impact on climate and health than previously thought. This is due to the increased use coal for heat and electricity as well as as as a raw material in manufacturing.

Plastics are extremely popular, cost-effective, and very useful. They are extremely popular and have quadrupled in global demand over the last forty years. However, this is likely to continue with negative effects for the environment as well as human health.

The public is well aware of the environmental damage plastics can cause, especially at the end of their lives. Plastics release greenhouse gases and air pollutants when they are burned and pollute water and soil with microplastics.

Research on the global environmental impact plastics has primarily focused on the disposal phase. Few studies have been done on the production of plastics. This has a significant impact on the climate and air quality. To trace the relevant material and energy flows, this analysis requires detailed information about supply chain and process details.

“So far, the simplistic assumption has been that the production of plastics requires roughly the same amount of fossil resources as the amount of raw materials contained in plasticsparticularly petroleum,” says Livia Cabernard, a doctoral student at the Institute of Science, Technology and Policy (ISTP) at ETH Zurich. Problem is that the relative importance of production and disposal has been greatly underestimated.

The researchers conducted extensive detective work to analyze the climate and health impacts of the global plastics supply chain over a period of 20 years.

In a recent study, Nature SustainabilityThe researchers found that plastics’ global carbon footprint has doubled since 1995 to reach 2.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e), in 2015. This is 4.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and is much higher than previously thought. In 2015, approximately 2.2 million disability-adjusted lives (DALYs), were caused by plastics from fine particle air pollution.

The team calculated the greenhouse gas emissions from plastics throughout their life cycle, from fossil resource extraction to processing into product classes and usage, to the end of life including recycling and incineration.

The main reason for plastics’ increasing carbon footprint is the booming plastics industry in developing countries like South Africa, India and Indonesia that are coal-based. The combustion of coal is the main source of the energy and heat required for the production plastics in these countries. A small amount is also used in the production of plastics as a raw materials.

“The plastics-related carbon footprint of China’s transport sector, Indonesia’s electronics industry and India’s construction industry has increased more than 50-fold since 1995,” explains Cabernard. Globally, plastics-related emissions from plastics production are nearly half of the carbon footprint of plastics. They have quadrupled in global terms since 1995.

Coal is a source of extremely fine particles, which can build up in the air. These particulate matter can be very harmful to your health and can cause asthma, heart disease, and bronchitis. The negative effects on health are increasing as more coal is used to produce electricity and process heat, as well as for plastics production.

Contrary to earlier estimates that assumed equal amounts fuel and raw materials were used in the production plastics, researchers have now shown that twice as many fossil energy is required for plastics production than what is contained in the plastics raw materials.

This impacts the assessment of the environmental effects. “Even in a worst-case scenario in which all plastics are incinerated, their production accounts for the lion’s share of total greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions,” says Cabernard. Plastics’ entire production process is responsible for 96% of its carbon footprint.

There was only one publication that had examined the global carbon footprint associated with plastics production. “This study underestimated greenhouse gas emissions, however, because it did not take into account the increasing dependence on coal due to the outsourcing of production processes to coal-based countries,” Cabernard explains.

Cabernard, a senior scientist at ISTP, and Stefanie Heckweg, professor of ecological system design at the Institute of Environmental Engineering, developed a new method for her study. This multi-regional, input/output analysis maps global value chains from production through consumption across all industries, countries, and regions.

Source: ETH Zurich

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