In the last two years the environmental threat to ecosystems from single-use plastic has received increasing coverage. Consumers, companies and governments have taken note and are addressing the problem by taking behavioural or regulatory action. However, the link from plastics to climate change is not obvious. Will reducing single-use plastic speed up low-carbon transition?
So far, efforts to speed up the transition have focused on highest emitting sectors, such as power generation and transportation. But another way carbon is entrenched in our daily lives is through the plastic packaging of everyday products, including food and drinks, and personal care and household items. Some consumers might be unaware that plastics are made from fossil fuels (oil, natural gas or coal, depending on where they’re produced), so reducing their use would also help to keep emissions in check, in turn giving us a better chance of keeping temperature rises under control.
Plastics emit greenhouse gases throughout their lifecycle, from the development of the feedstock, through production and transportation, to degradation or incineration. Degrading plastics release methane and ethylene, potent greenhouse gases.1 The majority of plastic is used for packaging2, so improving the quality, economics and uptake of recycling would make a big difference. Most plastic that is recycled today is shredded and turned into lower value products because of the limitations of recycling technology in removing additives and food residue, among other challenges related to the diversification of plastic materials and formats.3
Many companies are already anticipating the reputational and regulatory risks associated with plastic by taking action now. Leading brands are adopting recyclable packaging, have set targets to make their packaging or products from a certain percentage of recycled or alternative materials (e.g. paper), or are light-weighting packaging to reduce the amount of plastic content. Some experiments include in-store reusable and refillable stations. These initiatives have the potential to become the norm over time.
Other solutions include compostable bioplastics, turning plastic waste into product inputs, and using renewable energy during the plastic production process. Bioplastics and using renewables have a lower carbon footprint than conventional plastics, but are currently more costly according to an academic study published in Environmental Research Letters.4 An increasing number of solutions providers are working to find new ways to break down and reuse plastic, and develop waste stewardship agreements with corporates. Many of the solutions to address the plastics challenge involve designing waste out of the system, reflecting a circular economy approach that decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.5
Plastic waste is now firmly on the radar for the environmental pollution it creates, so action to reduce use is also a focus. Reducing use has the co-benefit of reducing emissions, but reducing emissions in other sectors will likely be more impactful for speeding up the low-carbon transition than relying on removing single-use plastic.
1Royer, Sarah-Jeanne et al. (2018). Production of methane and ethylene from plastic in the environment (Plos One), https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0200574.
2Geyer, Roland et al (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made (Science Advances), http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782.
3Ellen Macarthur Foundation. The New Plastics Economy
4Posen, Daniel et al. (2017).
Greenhouse gas mitigation for U.S. plastics production: energy first, feedstocks later,
5Ellen Macarthur Foundation. What is a circular economy?