Can Plastic Pollution Cause Climate Change?

An interesting review titled, “The Fundamental Links Between Climate Change and Marine Plastic Pollution”, describes the interactive relationship between climate change and marine plastic pollution. The review’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 presently vulnerable to both climate change and plastic pollution.

plastic bottle in water

Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Plastic Production

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.

As common plastics degrade, they continue to emit greenhouse gases like methane or ethylene, which 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. Degrading plastic products fragment into microplastics and smaller constituents parts that can be toxic to humans and marine organisms.

How Does Plastic Move Around the World?

Climate inevitably influences the movement of plastics between environments. 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. Flooding riverine systems can transport plastics into the ocean; tropical storms from oceans can push plastics into 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?

Climate change is altering the distribution of many species by subjecting them to novel thermal conditions. When marine habitats heat up, the species within them are usually forced to move to new regions to find more suitable temperatures. Heating oceans also contribute to hypoxic zone and coral bleaching. Plastic, on the other hand, can is ingested by marine species, which can low survival odds. In some cases, marine animals become entangled by plastic products or have their feeding pathways obstructed.

Plastic also 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.

How Does Plastic In the Ocean Affect Climate Change?

Authors of the review, “The Fundamental Links Between Climate Change and Marine Plastic Pollution”, reason that climate change and plastic pollution are fundamentally linked to one another. Plastic production is heavily dependent on fossil fuel use and the release of greenhouse gases as it degrades in oceans, both of which enhance ocean heating and climate change. Plastic dispersal across environments influenced by climate change-driven extreme weather. Marine ecosystems and species are vulnerable to these threats.

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