In the first week of COP26, Irene Maithya of Moi University, Kenya takes a timely deeper dive into the relationship between plastic pollution and the global environmental crisis.
What comes to mind when you think about plastic?
You may think about how convenient it is when you pick up your takeout order, your Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) masks during these Covid 19 times, packaging bags, plastic shoes, crates, bottles, floor tiles, household wares and containers. You may consider how cheap it is when you purchase new cleaning products for your home. You may even wonder at the physical properties that make it applicable for so many different uses; from toys to life saving medical equipment.
Unknown to many people, plastic bags are manufactured using crude oil.
During manufacturing, plastic emits considerable amounts of pollution, and the end product is not biodegradable. In other words, it is difficult to produce plastic bags, and nearly impossible to get rid of them. It is estimated that 60 to 100 million barrels of oil are required to manufacture a year’s worth of plastic bags worldwide, and it takes at least 400 years for a bag to biodegrade. Some of these plastics bags are used for less than 10 minutes before disposal. This is the kind of devastation plastic pollution causes to our natural environment – from plastic packaging choking and starving animals to microplastics in our water supply.
To climate change.
The Nexus between plastic pollution and climate change
Plastic starts in the ground as a fossil fuel, mainly oil and gas.
Extracting and refining fossil fuels is one of the most energy-intensive industries, releasing millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Does the term “greenhouse gas” ring a bell? That’s because the inordinate amount of greenhouse gases being released into the environment is the main culprit behind climate change. These gases, like carbon dioxide (CO2), become trapped in our atmosphere and warm the climate, much like a greenhouse. This rapid change in climate is melting glaciers, raising sea levels, and causing ever more extreme storms
Therefore, plastic pollution and climate change are not separate problems. The issues are actually intertwined – and each problem makes the other worse. Manufacturing plastic items adds to greenhouse gas emissions, while extreme weather such as the floods and typhoons associated with a heating planet disperse and worsen plastic pollution in the sea.
Way Forward – Solution
Although the problem is complex, the solution is quite simple – make less plastic. Or make no plastic!
Thankfully, it’s not just up to us. Policymakers can support this transition by embracing ingenious governance strategies; by banning unnecessary and dangerous single-use plastic, halting the development of new extraction sites and refineries, making companies pay for the pollution their products create through Extended Producer Responsibility, and incentivizing innovative product designs through government subsidies, favorable taxes to the manufacturing sector and supporting the non-state actors such as Environmental activists.