Climate Change and Plastic


plastic bottle in water

An article titled, “The Fundamental Links Between Climate Change and Marine Plastic Pollution”, describes the interactive relationship between climate change and marine plastic pollution. The article’s authors claim that climate change and marine plastic pollution are linked in three ways: a) the production of plastic relies on fossil fuel extraction and is thus a greenhouse gas contributor b) climate and weather influence the distribution and spread of plastic pollution across environments c) marine ecosystems and species are vulnerable to plastic pollution and climate change.

Does Plastic Cause Climate Change?

The rise in plastic demand is likely due to its reputation as an inexpensive and lightweight material that has a wide range of uses. Plastic is used for packaging, electronics, toys, utensils, safety gear, and infrastructure. Even so, plastic drives greenhouse gas emissions throughout multiple stages of its so-called “lifecycle”, from extraction and refining to transportation, incineration, and recycling.

From production to end-of-life, plastic materials release potent greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, methane, and ethylene. Greenhouse gases from plastic materials must therefore contribute to ocean heating and climate change. As common plastics degrade, they fragment into microplastics and smaller constituents parts that can be toxic to humans and marine organisms and also intensify ocean warming. Bio-based plastics, plastics made from biomass, are no exception. While bio-based plastics do produce fewer greenhouse gases than conventional plastics, they still release heat-trapping molecules during their lifecycles.



How Does Plastic Move Around the World?

The movement of plastics between environments is influenced by climate conditions. Plastics are circulated by the flow of water and wind. Extreme weather, like floods and windy storms, can move plastics from one system to another. For example, flooding riverine systems can transport plastics into the ocean, while tropical storms from oceans can push plastics onto terrestrial surfaces. Releasing plastic into the ocean or onto landfills is not the end of that plastic’s life cycle. Plastic and microplastics continue to impact the ecosystems long after they have been disposed of by humans.

How Does Plastic Affect Marine Ecosystems?

Ingesting plastic can lower the survival odds of certain marine organisms. In some cases, marine animals become entangled by plastic products or have their feeding and breathing pathways obstructed. On top of that, plastic potentially facilitates species migrations because plastic debris attracts encrusting organisms and microbial communities. Therefore both climate change and plastic pollution can contribute to species movement between ocean regions. Increased species mobility can bring about invasive species risks.

Climate change is altering the distribution of many species by subjecting them to novel thermal conditions. When marine habitats heat up, the species within those habitats are usually forced to move to new regions to find more suitable temperatures. Heating oceans also contribute to hypoxic zone and coral bleaching.

The Fundamental Links Between Climate Change and Marine Plastic Pollution

Authors of the review, “The Fundamental Links Between Climate Change and Marine Plastic Pollution”, reason that climate change and plastic pollution are interactive. Plastic production is heavily dependent on fossil fuel use and plastics continue to release greenhouse gases as they degrade in oceans, both of which drive ocean heating and climate change. Inversely, plastic dispersal across environments is influenced by climate factors, including wind, ocean currents, freshwater river flows, and storms.


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