The life cycle of plastic begins underground, as oil and gas are extracted from the depths of the planet’s surface. This fossil fuel is then refined in facilities, using extreme temperatures and a large amount of water and energy, where it is made into pellets that are eventually melted and shaped into things like water bottles, packaging, trash bags and clothes.
And the widespread use of single-use plastics – things we use once and then dispose of – is made worse by their disposal. Plastics do not degrade by simply throwing them into nature. Alarmingly, only about 9% of the plastic in the United States is actually recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — even things you specifically toss in the trash.
What you may not realize is that this is not just a pollution problem. It is a climate problem. And by the time we start talking about recycling, the damage has already been done.
The plastic manufacturing process requires so much energy that if the plastics industry were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to a 2021 report from Beyond Plastics.
Judith Inc., former regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency and current president of Beyond Plastics, said plastic is the “new coal.” Power generation from coal – the most polluting fossil fuel – is already being phased out. But Enck said plastics will likely stick around longer, unless consumers dramatically cut their use of plastic.
“It’s a killer for the climate,” Enk told CNN. “We’ve finally seen an increase in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The fossil fuel industry has realized that it is losing market share in transportation and electricity generation, so plastic production is Plan B for the fossil fuel industry.”
From its production to the end of its life, plastic emits greenhouse gases at every stage of its life cycle. Here’s why experts say the convenience of plastic comes at a huge cost to the climate, and what you can do to help reduce its impact.
The plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of greenhouse emissions each year, according to the Beyond Plastics report.
That’s the same as the emissions rate of 116 coal-fired power plants in 2020, according to the report’s authors. It’s also the same as the annual emissions of about 50 million cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And more and more plastic-making facilities continue to emerge online.
“Remember that when you make plastics, there are greenhouse gas emissions, but these facilities also emit massive amounts of toxins and airborne particles,” Enk added. “It really is a health threat.”
Enk said refineries and production facilities also tend to set up stores in marginalized communities of color.
“If you look at where the plastics industry accounts for more than 90% of climate pollution, you find it in 18 communities across the country, and they are all low-income communities, and the populations are more likely to be black,” Enck said, explaining the other findings in the report. “Plastic Production is an Environmental Sanitation Issue.”
Ink said recycling plastic doesn’t work, because most of what we think we’re recycling ends up in landfill. Nor does it address the greenhouse emissions that come from making it in the first place.
Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer for Oceana in North America, said people should think of the plastic crisis as an overflowing bathtub.
“When the bathtub is overflowing, you don’t want to run to get the mop; first, you want to turn off the tap,” Savitz said. “Recycling is the mop. It won’t go away, if the faucet is still on. So what we have to do is reduce the amount of plastic we produce at the source, and that turns the faucet off.”
What can you do about it
Ank said that recycling alone won’t solve this huge problem, but we still have to solve it – considering what can and can’t be recycled.
The number system on the bottom of the plastic items does not guarantee that they will be recycled. Only things marked 1 and 2 – and in rare cases, 5 – are sure bets, depending on what your municipality can handle.
That’s why it’s so important to focus on reducing plastic use in the first place, Enck said, and our individual changes can add up.
“You won’t solve the problem unless we change the law,” he said. “But in terms of individual actions, what I urge people to do is take a look at their home or work site – what is the heavy use of plastic?”
You won’t know what you can change until you evaluate. Write down all the plastics in your home. You’ll find most single-use items around the kitchen and bathroom. Then, armed with your list of places to use disposable plastic, you can start making replacements.
Here are some examples:
Say no to bottled water – Get a few canteens and cut a major source of plastic out of your life.
Reusable Grocery Bags You can easily go further by not using store-bought plastic product bags for apples and broccoli. If you are uncomfortable putting products directly into your cart, get a special bag to carry it until you reach the checkout. There is no rule that says you should pack fruits and vegetables in the store.
Choose wrapping paper (or not) over plastic – If you are looking for two versions of the same product and one is packed in paper or carton and the other is plastic, the choice is clear. And look for plastic-free options like bar shampoo.
Buy in bulk to reduce plastic waste Nuts, rice, and beans all come in plastic bags, but they don’t need to. Bring your own reusable containers to fill your favorite bulk foods. (Just be sure to take the scale off before you start filling it up, so you don’t pay for the weight of your container.)
Refuse plastic cutlery Take your own utensils to restaurants that usually save plastic. Or, if you’re ordering takeout, tell the restaurant they don’t need to add to your bag.
And the Enck group has more suggestions on how to cut back on your personal use of plastic.
Ultimately, Savitz said, the world needs large-scale change to address the climate impact on the fossil fuel and plastic industries. For example, Oceana is working with local volunteers from cities and counties across the country to help pass new laws to reduce single-use plastics, hoping to bring about change at the national level.
“We believe that if we can start reducing single-use plastics at the local level with local laws, that could start to become more of the norm,” she said. “Then we can start taking it to higher levels of government, even to the point of getting national policies that will lead to reductions in plastic use.”
Ultimately, Savitz said, consumers need to continue urging major companies to provide plastic-free solutions and help support refill and reuse programs to encourage society to move away from using plastic and avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis.
“Our country is burning, flooding, and hurricanes coming earlier and sooner,” she told CNN. “I really think it’s shocking that plastic is one of the things that really does that, and it hurts us in other ways as well. So if we can find a way to reduce our plastic production as a country and as a global community, we will benefit from climate change.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc. , a Warner Bros. discovery company. All rights reserved.