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 plant matter, 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).

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.

Recycled Polyester Is A Sustainable Clothing Alternative

Recycled polyester is an alternative clothing material for consumers who are eco-minded and or concerned with sustainability. Recycled polyester is a type of polymer that is produced from ethylene glycol – plastic. Typically recycled polyester is made from plastic water bottles and other common plastic containers that are melted down and reshaped into a fabric. Plastic products are cleaned, spun and converted into new products that may be recycled time and again.

Fiji bottle and shirt

The Production of Conventional Polyester, and Other Synthetic Fibers Is Unsustainable

Synthetic fibers, including conventional polyester, are from with oil as their base substance. Oil (and petroleum-chemicals) have high carbon content, and is therefore not produced with renewable materials. When oil is burned, it releases high amounts of carbon dioxide, a heat trapping natural gas, into the atmosphere. This adds to warmer global temperature averages. Extracting oil from natural reservoirs and refining it for conventional polyester demands amounts should not have to come at the cost of depleting non-renewables. Oil, like other fossil fuels, is in limited supply and is depleted faster than they being replenished.

Recycled Materials Can Prevent Pollution From Entering Landfills & Abate Soil Air and Water Pollution.

Recycled polyester repurposes existing plastic products, which reduces the quantity of plastics that end up as waste. Landfills and Earth’s seas amass millions of tons of plastic waste annually. This abundance of discarded plastic has no place to go after its been used by humans. Plastic is not biodegradable, which means that it will remain in Earth’s seas and landfills for 10s or 100s of years before it decomposes. Using materials like recycled polyester is a solution for plastic pollution because it entails removing objects from land spaces and ecosystems (or preventing them from being becoming waste in the first place). Reusing plastic waste can therefore slow or halt plastic pollution.