The Earth’s climate is paying for our addiction to plastic

By Christopher Thompson

Every stage of the plastic lifecycle releases harmful carbon emissions into the atmosphere, contributing to global heating

Plastics are among the most ubiquitous materials in our economy, our lives, and our environment. They are also among the most pervasive and persistent pollutants on Earth.

In recent years, stark images of beaches, waterways and wildlife filled with plastic have spurred demands for action to address plastic pollution. These calls are coupled with growing concern that plastic and its toxic additives pose serious risks to human health at every stage of the plastic lifecycle. Far less attention has been paid to the impacts of this same lifecycle on the Earth’s climate. This is a dangerous oversight.

From catastrophic wildfires in California to searing heatwaves and record drought in India, the scale and growing severity of the climate crisis are undeniable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that humanity must limit warming below 1.5C or face far greater and potentially irreversible climate chaos. To achieve this, we must cut global emissions 45% by 2030 and reach zero net emissions by 2050.

A recent report by the Center for International Environmental Law and partners shows that plastic’s rapidly rising emissions put these critical goals at risk. In 2019, plastic production and incineration will add over 850m metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – equivalent to the emissions from 189 coal-fired power plants. By 2050, these emissions could rise to 2.8bn metric tons, equivalent to 615 new coal plants.

Why are these emissions growing so rapidly? Because plastics are made almost entirely from fossil fuels. Natural gas, oil and coal account for 99% of what goes into plastic. Thus, plastic’s climate impacts begin not in the oceans, but at the wellheads and drillpads where plastic is born.