Are Climate Change and Plastic Pollution Related?

Plastic pollution and climate change are the most influential stressors to marine environments globally. These stressors are simultaneously occurring and interactive. Marine plastic pollution is made up of the plastic products that have accumulated in the world’s seas. From production to end-of-life, plastic materials release potent greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and ethylene (C2H4). Greenhouse gases from plastic materials contribute to ocean heating and exacerbate climate change.

Climate change refers to long term shifts in a region’s temperature or weather patterns. Climate events, such as flooding and storms, impact the concentration of plastic’s global distributions. A 2022 review titled “The Fundamental Links Between Climate Change and Marine Plastic Pollution” assembles evidence that demonstrate the feedback loops between climate change and marine plastic pollution.

How Does Climate Change Affect Pollution?

Plastics (including microplastics) are transported from place to place by way of winds, water flow patterns, and storms. Wind and storms can influence the dispersal of plastics. The same is true of flooding events and rainfall patterns. Climate change is already beginning to increase the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather phenomena, and will likely continue to spread plastics into novel environments, where they may disrupt ecosystems and or release heat trapping gases.

How Plastics Contribute To Climate Change

The 2022 review has three categories for plastic’s climate change contribution: “1) plastic production, transport and use; 2) plastic disposal, mis-managed waste and degradation; and 3) bio-based plastics”. From the very beginning of their life-cycle, plastic and bioplastics are greenhouse gas sources. Making plastic requires extracting organic materials, such as crude oil or biomass, which are burned to be refined and processed. The resulting plastic must too be heated for molding and manufacturing. After use, the plastic product may be recycled, become landfilled, be incinerated, or end up an environmental pollutant. In each case, the plastic will emit more CO2 as it degrades or is melted, according to a 2019 study referenced.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Plastic Production

Climate change influences the distribution of plastic waste; plastic has substantial greenhouse gas contributions, which enhance ocean heating and climate change. Put another way, changes in climate and climate-driven extreme weather events influence the spread of plastic across environments, from oceans, to freshwater systems, to terrestrial areas. But co-concurrently, plastic influences climate change by releasing emissions twofold throughout its life-cycle; production (including refining and manufacturing) and after-use life (including landfills, recycling, incineration and environmental waste).

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